Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Sign Language is so beautiful!”

John McWhorter, in discussing the proposition that “language channels thought,” that because some languages seem to be better at expressing certain kinds of thoughts, then the people who speak these languages are able to think thoughts that others, handicapped by less artful languages, cannot, addresses the romanticization of “minority languages.” Some languages are supposedly purer or more spiritual, closer to the authentic, more natural, as though these languages retain the sheen of the Golden Age. This idea can be called “Whorfian” after the linguist Benjamin Whorf who claimed that the Hopi language was especially suited to a healthy Zen attitude because in that language there is no way of talking about time. Everything happens in an eternal now. John McWhorter says Whorf clearly didn’t know Hopi. Hopi marks time all the time.

A speaker of American Sign Language captured the essence of how Whorfianism unintentionally demeans minority languages, mocking outsider fans of Sign. In an interview, the signer feigned ‘a vapid, rapt look on his face. “Sign language is so beautiful,” he signs, in a gushing mockery of the attitude that exoticizes sign and correspondingly reduces deaf people to the status of pets, mascots. “It’s just so wonderful that deaf people can communicate!”’ Or, as I would have it, ‘It’s just so wonderful that people who aren’t like us can think and process reality as richly as we do!’

I think American Sign Language is beautiful. I don’t feel weird about saying so. It’s clear to me as well that Deaf people are people and can think and communicate. I’m glad they can do it in a manner I find transfixingly beautiful. Maybe they don’t care that I find it beautiful. Whatever. I’ve resisted the notion that there are spoken languages that sound lovelier than others. But I’ve come around. I’d rather listen to a Brazilian speaking legalese than a German uttering sweet nothings, a Francophone pontificating over poetry recited in Hebrew, as much as I don’t understand any of it. Once we come to meanings I’m sure my mind would change. Idiosyncratic ear (or eye) aside there is no language that can’t express beautiful thoughts. There is no language that limits the mind it inhabits, making categories of thoughts unthinkable. At least, not according to John McWhorter. I’m inclined to believe him.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter


David Lee Ingersoll said...

The first time I clearly understood that language was thought was when, on a train, I saw a deaf woman talking to herself. She was signing. Initially I thought it seemed weird but then I realized - OF COURSE. I talk to myself all the time in English. How else would a deaf person talk to herself?

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I think of language not as thought but as our tool for understanding and investigating and communicating thought - that is, the languageless are not without thought but without sophisticated tools for working on their thoughts. Of course, while working your thoughts over can be productive, it isn't necessarily. And those seemingly much more limited tools (screams, yelps, whistles, barks, tailwagging) can communicate thoughts pretty well.

I talk to myself in sign, too, limited though my competency be.