Talking Hands, by Margalit Fox
The only serious complaint I have towards this book is the way that the author so highly talks about dodgy and disreputable linguist Noam Chomsky, to the point of calling the contemporary era of linguistics the Chomsky era. Aside from this notable misstep, the author does a great job of discussing a particularly mysterious community with a high deaf population, and manages to weave this story into a larger story about how it is that people create languages in the first place, which proves to be a very deeply interesting question well worth discussing and something that I must admit is an interest of mine. As this is the second book by the author that I have read, it has become rather notable that the author has such a strong interest in issues of communication and in the languages that people use to communicate with others. As communication happens to be a great interest of mine, this book provided a great deal of insight into how it is that communication is hard-wired into the brain and manifested in different ways based on the particular environment, and also the way that indigenous sign languages show a consistent set of principles that allow them to be well-understood that appear to take advantage of space and motion rather than the verbal elements that make up other languages.
This book of almost 300 pages is made up of seventeen chapters and other materials that combine to tell a compelling story about a remote village and deaf culture and the formation of languages, all of which are quite interesting subjects. The first few essays look at the author’s trip to a remote Bedouin village in Israel where a large percentage of the population (at least 4% or so) are deaf and where everyone speaks sign language. The author weaves in the story of linguists attempting to decipher this language and gain insights into the language-building capacity of people while simultaneously preserving its state as much as possible in the face of the influence of Israeli Sign Language, which many of the younger generation is learning with other interesting stories as well. For example, some of the book’s material deals with the origins of ASL and the tug of war between those who advocate speaking with the hands and those who want deaf language to be an imitation of spoken English, which is much harder for the deaf to learn, apparently. Also, the author uses the discussion of the spontaneous generation of local sign languages around the world as an entrance into discussing the neural program that apparently exists within the mind that allows languages to be created from pidgins into creoles whether spoken verbally or through one’s hands.
And I must admit that I find the author’s approach to be compelling and the subject matter to be deeply interesting. While I am not personally familiar with deaf culture or politics on a personal level, I do come from a family where I and others have been hard of hearing in some aspects (I have high frequency hearing loss in my left ear at present, and other members of my family have suffered from even more serious hearing loss). I also have a deaf friend with whom I occasionally communicate via translation from those who are better at ASL than I am. Beyond that, though, my own deep personal interests in language and communication are well served by a book that demonstrates how it is that human beings are almost compelled to reach out across the void that separates them from others and strives to build some aspect of communication with those around us, be it by gestures that become formalized into a language or whether it is through the creation of creole languages. Likewise, the book contains some poignant discussions of brain damage and its effects on sign language users, a rather sad aspect. There is a great deal of interest here if one has an interest in language and communication as well as the deaf.