The narrative sections of this book document a journey to a remarkable place: an isolated Middle Eastern village whose inhabitants “speak” sign language—a language unlike any other in the world, witnessed by few outsiders and never before described. For the last several years, a team of four linguists, two from the United States and two from Israel, has been working in the village, documenting this extraordinary language and, little by little, deciphering it. In the summer of 2003, I was granted the immense privilege of accompanying the team on a three-day research trip to the village. To my knowledge, I am the only journalist from outside the region who has ever been there.
From the time the linguists first set foot in the village, they have striven ferociously to protect the privacy of the people they are studying. That is their job. Before they could even begin their fieldwork, the team spent many painstaking months earning the trust of the villagers. When I first learned of the project, and broached the idea of this book, the linguists felt, with ample justification, that the presence of any newcomer, much less a journalist, had the potential to capsize their entire endeavor. Because of this, I acceded to more constraints on my reporting than I normally would. These were arrived at in the course of nearly a year of transatlantic negotiations with the team’s leader, Dr. Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa, as I sought permission to make the trip.
During my time in the village I was, by prearrangement, a mostly silent observer of the linguists as they went about their work; at no time was I allowed to interview the villagers independently. (Given the breathtaking gulf between their native language and mine, this would have been no small trick anyhow.) Although the linguists continue to make regular research trips to the village, I was permitted to go along only this once. All of the scenes described in the narrative, and all of the dialogue, I saw and heard firsthand during the course of this visit. The only exception is the tale of the larcenous mice, which I have reconstructed based on an interview with the victim. My descriptions of the history and daily life of Al-Sayyid are based on my own observations, and on interviews with members of the research team.
There were other conditions. In exchange for permission to accompany the team, I agreed to show Dr. Sandler all portions of my manuscript pertaining to Al-Sayyid. Because of the exquisite cross-cultural sensitivity their work demands, the linguists are ethically obliged—and, by extension, so am I—not to disclose certain personal details about the life and inhabitants of Al-Sayyid that they have learned in the course of their visits. In the end, I chose to show the entire manuscript to Dr. Sandler as well as to the three other linguists on her team, Drs. Irit Meir, Carol Padden and Mark Aronoff. I have welcomed their corrections on matters of fact, their clarifications of technical material, and their suggestions for avenues of further inquiry. Matters of interpretation and emphasis, however, remain mine alone, as do any residual errors.
Dr. Sandler also expressed deep concern that with the publication of my book, this insular, traditional community might be overrun with curiosity-seekers and members of the news media. In keeping with the linguists’ own practice, standard for this type of anthropological research, I have changed the name of every villager mentioned in the narrative. I have also disguised the precise location of the village, along with certain other identifying details. Consider Al-Sayyid a kind of signing Brigadoon (although it is very real, and I have seen it), a place utterly impossible for any outsider to find. I trust strongly that none will try.
In one other instance in the narrative, the brief account in Chapter 7 of a scholar who is said to make scientific generalizations about a language that “only he speaks,” certain identifying details have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.
In recent decades, the field of sign-language linguistics has established itself as one of the most yeasty, contentious and promising branches of cognitive science. As such, it is awash in competing scholarly opinions. In a book written for a general readership, it is impossible to give an exhaustive account of either the historical development of the discipline or its present state of affairs. What this book offers is an introduction to the linguistic study of sign language in the form of a representative cross section of the field and its preoccupations from its beginnings in the 1960s to the present day. It is a slice—one of many possible slices—of sign-language linguistics at the start of the twenty-first century, and is by no means intended to represent the field in toto. A bibliographic essay at the end of the book offers suggestions for further reading.
Some notes on usage: Anyone who writes about deafness quickly discovers that worlds of meaning, politics and identity hang on the capitalization of a single letter: the initial “d” of the word “deaf.” In the United States, it is often customary to capitalize “Deaf ” when referring to any self-identified member of the large cultural minority, united by common language and traditions, of people who cannot hear. (The word is lowercased when it refers strictly to the audiological condition.) After much deliberation, I have chosen to keep the word “deaf ” lowercased throughout the pages of this book. My only motivation is typographic consistency, in particular as it applies to the discussions of Al-Sayyid, where capital-D concepts like “Deaf culture” and “Deaf power” are unknown by virtue of the fact that it is so utterly ordinary to be deaf there. I have, however, retained the original capitalization of the word in all quoted matter.
When one is writing about sign language, verbs of attribution also grow thorny. On a physiological level, no one “speaks” sign language, or ever “says” anything in sign. Sign languages have users. They have signers. But, technically, don’t have speakers. A work of this length, however, begs for stylistic variety, and as a result, I sometimes use verbs of speech—“speak,” “say,” “talk”—along with their derivatives, to refer to the act of signed communication, as in the title of the book itself. These words are meant purely as loose, colloquial metaphors, to be understood much as “spoke” is in the title of the anthropologist Nora Groce’s lovely book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.
In a book about cognitive science, the terms “mind” and “brain” also pose a challenge to smooth usage. I have in general adopted the familiar “hardware-versus-software” analogy, using “brain” to refer to the physical structure within the cranial cavity and “mind” to denote the range of operations this physical structure can perform.
Talking Hands is organized into seventeen chapters. The odd-numbered chapters form the narrative of the linguists’ visit to Al-Sayyid and their subsequent work deciphering its language. The even-numbered chapters chart the course of sign-language linguistics: Chapters 2 and 4 offer an introduction to the signed languages of the world, and to the aims of modern linguistics. Chapters 6 and 8 chronicle the birth of the scientific study of sign language, and examine the very special conditions that give rise to “signing villages” like Al-Sayyid. Chapters 10 and 12 describe the grammar of signed languages, focusing on the unusual means by which they build words and sentences. Chapters 14 and 16 explore the psychology of sign language—memory for signs, “slips of the hand,” and so on—and what sign language has to tell us about the neurological workings of human language in the brain.
Finally, a note on sign-language transcription. Following the convention of sign-language linguistics, the English glosses for signs are printed in small capital letters: FATHER, ROOSTER, THINK. Where a single sign is glossed using two or more English words, they are linked with hyphens: YOUNGER-BROTHER, TAKE-CARE-OF, LEFT-SIDE. Compound signs are glossed with a ligature mark: thrill^inform. Words spelled out by means of the manual alphabet are capitalized and hyphenated: W-A-T-E-R.