Signing from a Hearing Perspective
As someone who speaks German and knows how to pronounce Welsh, I get irritated by people saying that German is an ugly guttural language, and Welsh must be completely unpronounceable because it’s got all those Ws in it. Then there’s the old chestnuts about how Italian opera is arguing set to music, and French is the language of love, and having a Birmingham accent means you’re a bit thick. So I can understand the irritation Deaf people experience when hearing people go on about how sign language looks pretty. (It’s a bit like the character in A Fish Called Wanda who gets all excited when John Cleese’s character speaks Russian.) But at least they’re not saying it looks ugly!
I went to a Pagan event recently where there was a signer, and the signer got a standing ovation. I think this was partly because he was there for the whole day, and interpreting words that were difficult to translate into BSL. So, clearly the Pagan organisation should have got the speakers to send transcripts of their talks and involved the Deaf Pagans earlier in order to make sure that there weren’t problems of vocabulary. But I think it was the first time a signer had attended the event (though that in itself is a cause for concern if Deaf Pagans had been attending it for longer), so I guess they were still on the learning slopes.
Also, some of the audience (including myself) commented on how the signing augmented the talk, as we could work out what some of the signs meant, and they seemed quite symbolic (for example, the sign for ‘whole’ in BSL). And yes, we also said that it looked elegant and graceful. And I think people were impressed by the skill of instantaneously translating from one language to another – the guy would probably have got a standing ovation if he had been translating instantaneously from English into French, say. Also, given that many English-speakers have a mental block about learning another language, they are automatically impressed by someone who speaks or signs another language. And the English associate gesture with those expressive French types across the water, so we automatically think that gesturing a lot means your emotions are being expressed more freely (even though intellectually we know it’s just normal speech).
I also think that Pagans might be more interested in gesture than most people, since many of us are keen practitioners of ritual, which is all about using other forms of communication and modes of consciousness. I was very interested to read (in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories) about the ancient Indian language of mudra, which is a gestural language in yoga – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudra . If you think about it, the letters of various alphabets (the runic Futhark, the Greek alphabet, and the Hebrew alphabet for example) have symbolic and ritual values, and there was a version of Ogham that was finger-spelt. So why not use the potential of ASL or BSL as a magical and symbolic language?
Another source of fascination in listening to, reading, or watching a language one doesn’t understand is that because your brain is pre-disposed to make sense of language and gesture, it looks or sounds as if one could almost understand it, if only someone would adjust one’s brain. I enjoy watching signers, but there’s also the frustration of not understanding. I wish everyone was taught sign language at school (as well as being able to communicate with Deaf people, it would also be useful in situations where there’s a lot of ambient noise). Also the human brain is programmed to focus the eye on movement occurring in peripheral vision (because humans are predators) – and the signers always stand on the edge of the stage, in peripheral vision – so we all end up watching them. I went to see a play in the theatre which was accompanied by signing, and again, found that it augmented the performance.
Perhaps those who know sign language should feel sorry for people who don’t – our gestures are mere hand-waving, a failure to communicate – whereas signers have a whole vocabulary at their fingertips.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Allison Kaftan, whose well-written and thought-provoking post over at DeafDC.com “Silent Hands Sculpt Epitome of Beauty…Not” ( http://www.deafdc.com/blog/?p=814 ) helped to initiate an interesting email exchange which led to the writing of Yvonne’s article.
Yvonne Aburrow has been a Pagan and polytheist since 1985, a Wiccan since 1991, and also dropped in on Druidry for a while. She has just started an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities at Bath Spa University. She has written four books : The Enchanted Forest: the magical lore of trees; Auguries and Omens: the magical lore of birds; The Sacred Grove: the mysteries of the forest; and The magical lore of animals. She also writes poetry. She has a strong interest in ethnography, mythology, symbolism, languages, science fiction, history and archaeology. She lives in Bristol, and is married to Nick Hanks, an archaeologist. They have 2 cats.