I recently read (or glanced through parts) of the 2003 book by Scott K. Liddell: Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language
The main message of the book is one that I would have found trivial if I did not know anything about linguistics. It must take a linguist to surprise a linguist, I guess. Liddell basically points out that there is more to talking than just what is said. I wonder if there are really any structural linguisitic professors out there that would argue against this?
Using many examples he shows how in ASL there are many processes of meaning-making at work. And he suggests that the same is true for spoken languages. When we speak we use words and grammar, but we also use intonation, and we gesture, raise our eyebrows, roll our eyes, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, the same is true for American Sign Language, and undoubtedly for all spoken and signed languages across the globe. When we sign we also gesture, use space in different ways, raise our eyebrows in different flavours, and roll our eyes in all directions. Every language has lexical items (signs and words) and grammatical processes to combine and alter them, but there is always so much more going on when we express ourselves.
Deaf or Hearing?
Liddell is however probably now the first and foremost figure in the Sign Language research community to move to a new agenda. The old (or current) agenda is proving that Sign Language is at a par with spoken/written languages at all levels (such as categorical perception of phonological properties). Alongside runs research showing (dis)similarities in neurological processing between so-called non-linguistic gestures and linguistic gestures (further proof that sign language is like ‘real’ language and not like gesturing).
Signers or Talkers?
When I started reading about sign language and gestures I found it difficult to believe how little interaction there was between research on both topics. Gesture researchers were finding out that gestures and speech are not separated by a fence called ‘linguistic status’, while at the same time Sign Language researchers kept on proving the inferior nature of “gesticulation”. Did they choose to be blind to normal gestures of hearing people? Is there still fear of not being taken seriously? Perhaps there is, and I cannot fathom whether such fear is warranted nor whether ASL status still requires defence beyond reason.
ASL or English?
I heartily recommend Liddell’s book to anyone interested in the similarities between signed and spoken languages and the similarities between sign language and gestures. Rest assured that Liddell provides a score of wonderful material on ASL meaning-making mechanisms, which will clear anyone of the notion that it is a poor or primitive language. The richness he documents is testimony to what matter most: people´s enormous potential to communicate effectively with eachother, through any and all means available.
Two out of four of the above pictures contain people that are ‘signers’, the other are mere ‘talkers and gesturers’. Can you spot them?