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Frequently Asked Questions

How did you come to write Talking Hands?

As a journalist with two degrees in linguistics, I enjoy combining my two fields whenever possible and writing about language for the general reader. For years, I’ve dreamed of writing a popular book about language that would be universally accessible yet contain the scientific insights—and the narrative elegance—of a book by Oliver Sacks or John McPhee. But for years, no compelling enough topic presented itself.

In the summer of 2001, I was having lunch with Mark Aronoff, an internationally renowned linguist and my former academic adviser. I was telling him about my desire to write such a book, and bemoaning the lack of a suitable topic. Let’s face it: I was whining.

“Come with us,” Mark said.

That was when he told me about the research project that is the centerpiece of Talking Hands. With three colleagues, Mark had been working secretly in Al-Sayyid, a remote Bedouin village where, as the result of an abnormally high incidence of hereditary deafness, an indigenous sign language had sprung up, “spoken” by deaf and hearing people alike. It was a language few outsiders had ever seen. By decoding this mysterious language, Mark and his colleagues hoped to isolate the most basic ingredients from which all human languages, signed and spoken, are made.

But tagging along with the scientists turned out to be no simple matter. After nearly a year of trans-Atlantic negotiations with the research team’s leader, Professor Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa (I literally flew to Europe, where she was then working, for a single day, just to take her to lunch and plead my case), I was finally granted permission to accompany the team on a visit to the signing village in the summer of 2003. The story of that trip — a journey to a village where everyone speaks sign language — is the narrative heart of Talking Hands.

What are sign languages, anyway? Did someone sit down and invent them?

The sign languages that Deaf people speak every day are real, natural languages, as grammatical complex and fully human as any spoken language. No one sat down and invented them. Instead, they arose spontaneously in places where Deaf people had the opportunity to congregate, and have evolved historically over time, just as spoken languages do. (Sign languages even have regional and ethnic dialects!)

Is there one universal sign language, used by Deaf people around the world?

No. Nearly every country has its own national sign language, each one different from the next. Today, there are scores of sign languages in use around the globe, possibly hundreds, from American Sign Language to British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language, German Sign Language, Danish Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language, Turkish Sign Language, Israeli Sign Language, Saudi Arabian Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language, Hong Kong Sign Language, Japanese Sign Language, Mozambiquan Sign Language, Zimbabwean Sign Language, and more.

Is American Sign Language simply a manual version of English?

No. ASL, the language of a quarter- to a half-million North Americans, is an autonomous language that evolved independently of English, with its own grammatical structure. (Linguists have compared aspects of ASL grammar to Japanese and Navajo.) Strikingly, ASL and British Sign Language, though both used in English-speaking countries, are mutually unintelligible. A Deaf American will actually have an easier time understanding a Deaf Frenchman: ASL is historically descended from French Sign Language.

Why do signers seem to grimace while they’re signing?

Those facial expressions are actually a crucial part of sign-language grammar. In the sign languages of the world, the face, head and eyes play a vital role, conveying extra grammatical information—turning a declarative sentence into a question, for example—while the signer’s hands are “busy talking.”

Which side of the brain controls sign language — the right, where our visual and spatial faculties lie, or the left, where spoken-language ability resides?

That was the fundamental question confronting the first sign-language researchers in the 1970’s and 80’s. It was an open question whether sign language was controlled by the right half of the brain or the left, and persuasive arguments could be made on both sides. Then, one brilliant scientist was inspired to study Deaf signers who had suffered strokes. The findings were astonishing — and they answered the question once and for all. I explore these studies of the signing brain in detail in Chapter 16 of Talking Hands.

What was it like going to the village of Al-Sayyid? Exactly where is it, anyway?

Al-Sayyid (pronounced es-SAYY-id) is hot, dusty and like nowhere else on earth. You reach it from a series of ever-narrower, unmarked dirt roads, miles from the nearest town. There are olive groves, and grazing sheep and goats, all around. A typical village home might consist of two simple rooms in a whitewashed, tin-roofed building. The head of the household might have three wives (the community is polygamous) and twenty children, six of whom are deaf. Inside, you sit on the floor on hand-loomed rugs, drinking sweet tea and eating a meal of fragrant kebabs and homemade pita bread, and watch, amazed, as a dozen lively conversations—all in sign language, used by deaf and hearing members of the family alike—erupt in the air around you. Then you look up to see a camel shambling by the front door. Definitely a not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling!

As for the location of the village, all I can say is this: Al-Sayyid is somewhere in Israel. The four scientists working there are, understandably, quite adamant that the villagers’ privacy be protected. As a result, I have disguised the precise location of Al-Sayyid in my book. Consider the village a kind of signing Brigadoon, impossible for any outsider to find. But Al-Sayyid is very real, and Talking Hands will take you there.

Why is the language of a “signing village” like Al-Sayyid so crucially important to science?

A brand-new, indigenous sign language like that of Al-Sayyid, offers scientists an unprecedented opportunity to see the human “language instinct” in action—to watch what happens when the mind has to make a language from scratch.

As Wendy Sandler, one of the four scientists profiled in Talking Hands says: “A linguist never has the opportunity to see how language is born. All spoken languages are either thousands of years old or came about as a result of contact between languages that are thousands of years old. So in spoken language there is no such thing—there can be no such thing—as a new language born of nothing. Only in a sign-language situation can that happen. If you get a deaf community, then a language will be born, and there are no other languages in the environment that are accessible.”

Are there other “signing villages”?

Yes — about a dozen at last count, all in remote corners of the world. Scientific work in these villages is just barely beginning. At the end of Talking Hands, I take readers to an international meeting of researchers who are studying these “signing villages,” the first time in history that all of them had convened in one place. And, as scientists are now learning, there may be even more of these “signing villages” out there than anyone ever realized, waiting to be discovered... .

Why is the study of sign language in general such a hot topic in cognitive science?

For decades, everything that scientists knew about the structure of human language (and, by extension, everything they knew about how language works in the human mind), came from the study of spoken language. Sign languages, to the extent that anyone thought about them at all, weren’t considered languages: ASL was only discovered to be a “real” language in 1960! And only in the 70’s did scientists fully realize that this language in another modality—a language transmitted by hand and received by eye—held deep, surprising clues to the kinds of mental systems that all human languages belong to.

Today, the study of signed languages is revealing dramatic new evidence of how all language, signed and spoken, is processed, stored and remembered in the mind.

What did the mysterious sign language of Al-Sayyid turn out to reveal about the structure of human language?

That is the $64,000 question. For the answer, you’ll have to read the book!