This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 20, 1992

August 20, 1992 - Sign language

Some years back, I was eating lunch in a Chicago cafeteria. Suddenly, the whole room was electrified by two people who never said a word.

A woman walked in the front door. At the other end of the room, a man leapt to the top of a table. The two of them commenced a furious argument -- with their fingers.

None of us had a clue what the dispute was about, but it was obviously intense. Everyone in the room fell silent, swinging their gazes back and forth like spectators at a tennis match.

Finally, after some 15 emotion-charged minutes, the woman signed a final, unmistakably dismissive gesture, and stormed back out the door. The man turned almost purple, then stiffly resumed his meal.

While I have seen many arguments in my life, I have never witnessed any so dramatic and eloquent. That was the first moment when I grasped that "signing" -- the gestural speech of the deaf -- was more than just a crude code for the handicapped. It was a rich and marvelously expressive language in its own right.

I recalled that incident when I ran across an article last week (in the July, 1992 issue of Smithsonian) about American Sign Language. The author details the history of sign language, and briefly reviews a body of interesting anecdotes and recent scientific studies that show that sign language is indeed a language.

Here's one of the anecdotes: the football huddle originated in the 1890s, at a school for the deaf. The team needed to talk -- sign -- to each other, without their opponents seeing what they were saying.

Wherever deaf people are found, so is sign language -- although the "dialects" around the world are as unintelligible to people outside the local region as Swahili might be to a Serb.

Where things begin to get really interesting is that deaf babies (raised in households where the adults are always signing) actually "babble" with their fingers. That is, they make experimental, not-quite-random motions with their hands, just as hearing babies coo, buzz, and otherwise tune up their voices.

Whether hearing-impaired or no, all of us go through precisely the same of stages of language acquisition. For instance, many children have trouble with the idea of "pronouns," the concepts behind "he," "she," and even "you," and "me."

Sign language would seem to be much simpler to learn, right? A child can just point to someone for "you," and point to him- or herself for "me."

But young children still learning to sign make the same kinds of mistakes. They point to themselves when the context of the "conversation" makes it clear that they mean "you." Or they point to their moms when they mean themselves.

That suggests that sign language isn't just spatial shorthand, it's conceptual. It has a GRAMMAR. Or as signers themselves put it, signing is "brain stuff."

The language center of the brain is located on the left side. And here's the clincher: When their language center is damaged, say in a car accident, deaf children lose the ability to sign. This is exactly parallel to people who suffer an immense blow to the left side of the brain and ever after, cannot talk.

Signing is speech.

Years after the cafeteria incident, I caught a National Theater of the Deaf's performance of "A Christmas in Wales," by Dylan Thomas. There was a wonderful scene where a group of carolers stood silently outside a lighted house, their hands moving in perfect, silent harmony.

The glory of libraries is that we have captured speech, set it to the page, bound it in buckram, made of it something that can be easily stacked, tracked, traded and trucked.

But how shall we preserve and disseminate the marvelous, evocative fluidity of signing?

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