Saturday, November 19, 2016

Thoughts on ASL

[NOTE: If you're part of Deaf culture, a lot of these ruminations are going to be of the "well, duh" variety. But since I don't currently know anyone who is part of the culture, all this was new to me.]

The other day I was watching a music video performed in ASL (check it out) and a few things I'd never noticed before caught my eye. One of them is that everyone who signs in ASL, whether natively or as a second language, has his/her own way of performing the same sign. It's almost like regional accents in spoken English -- still recognizable as a particular word, but with its own local spin. There are also variations in signed phrases; you can finger-spell things out, use standard signs, or create a slang term to express the same concept.

Another thing I hadn't fully considered was the relationship of ASL to spoken and written English. Years ago, I remember a member of the Deaf community being quoted in a press release about a book being released in ASL format; her comment was something like, "Of course I read English, but there were things about this book I never really understood until I saw it in ASL." I think of verbal English and ASL being tied to written English the same way Mandarin and Cantonese are tied to written Chinese -- users of both languages have a clear understanding of the writing they have in common, but they translate that writing into markedly different languages. We decode the written word into different things: a native English speaker translates the written word into auditory phonemes which form words, phrases and sentences; a native ASL signer likewise translates the written word into visual gestures which form words, phrases and sentences.

All languages of which I'm aware have some form of poetry (even if it's horrible Vogon poetry). Certainly this is true for ASL, where the gestures that form words -- whether earthy and choppy or expressive and delicate -- have a beauty all their own. But how easy is it, for instance, to understand the nature of rhyme if your native language is non-verbal, and you can't hear the similarities in the ways certain words are pronounced? And what constitutes "rhyme" in a non-verbal language? I suppose signed words that have similar-looking gestures form rhyme cognates in ASL and other sign languages. Thus it's entirely possible to compose a poem that has a beautiful rhythm and rhyme scheme in ASL, but not necessarily in written or spoken English.

Man, language is weird. But really fascinating.

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