The Secret Sign Language of the Ottoman Court.

Amelia Soth describes an interesting phenomenon of Ottoman court life:

In the 1600s, the court of the Ottoman Empire employed some 40 deaf servants. They were chosen not in spite of their deafness, but because of it. The deaf servants were favored companions of the sultan, and their facility in nonverbal communication made them indispensable to the court, where decorum restricted speech in the sultan’s presence. As Sir Paul Rycaut, an English traveler to the Ottoman court, wrote:

[T]his language of the Mutes is so much in fashion in the Ottoman Court, that none almost but can deliver his sense in it, and is of much use to those who attend the Presence of the Grand Signior, before whom it is not reverent or seemly so much as to whisper.

The deaf attendants taught pages in training to communicate by means of signs. It isn’t certain whether theirs was a fully fledged sign language, though Rycaut suggested that the attendants “can discourse and fully express themselves; not only to signifie their sense in familiar questions, but to recount Stories, understand the Fables of their own Religion, the Laws and Precepts of the Alchoran, the name of Mahomet, and what else may be capable of being expressed by the Tongue.”

Another European observer, Ottaviano Bon, wrote that “both the Grand Signor, and divers that are about him, can reason, and discourse with the Mutes of any thing: as well and as distinctly, alla Mutescha, by nods and signes, as they can with words.”

She has much more to say about the rule of seclusion and its history (it goes back to the Abbasid Caliphate) and the various courts of the Topkapi Palace. Another good post from JSTOR Daily!

Comments

  1. though Rycaut suggested that the attendants “can discourse and fully express themselves …

    Looks to me as if he simply said “this is what they can do”. Of course one can have doubts that it was so, or that straightforward. But from what is quoted Rycaut is not suggesting, but rather stating.

    This misleading use of “suggested” instead of “claimed”, “said” or “wrote” in journalism is widespread and annoying. It’s never clear to me, in any of the instances I’ve seen, what the journalist’s agenda is.

    It could be due to the general decline of standards <* harrumph * >, or elegant variation, or slavish imitation of some journalistic idol – if such a person exists.

  2. That’s a good point; I’ll have to add it to my list of gripes about journalists.

  3. Another possible explanation is snowflake drift. Apparently a lot of people now worry about saying anything that might make someone “uncomfortable”, or “uneasy” etc. A bald statement such as “he said” might be hurtful, and “he claimed” might be taken as wilful misinterpretation. So the worst is avoided by “he suggested”, even when the claimer has been dead for several centuries.

  4. Reminds me of obsessive academic use of “quite” to qualify adjectives that don’t need qualifying.

  5. Two unrelated remarks:

    The use of deaf servants at the Ottoman court was fairly often cited in western European commentaries as an example of the Turkish Empire’s oriental strangeness. It was well enough known to feature as a feature of the pseudo-Turkish court of the Calormen Tisroc is C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.

    Separately:

    Journalists’ excessive qualification of paraphrased quotes is particularly common and pernicious in descriptions of the results of scientific studies. I hate seeing, “This shows that X may increase the risk of Y.” No, it shows that X may cause Y, or X increases the risk of Y. Putting both qualifiers in reduces the statement to a mere one bit of meta-information.

  6. This shows that X may increase the risk of Y
    That’s correct since a statistical link between X and Y doesn’t mean that X is a cause of Y OR increases the risk of Y. Instead, X may be an effect of Y, or an affect of a shared cause, or an artifact of a bias of ascertainment of Y.

    Even if X actually contributes to Y, it doesn’t have to be listed as a cause. It could me a risk modifier, changing the magnitude of risk conferred by a different cause.

    Lack of mental / social engagement is frequently cited as a potential risk factor for Alzheimer’s, but it is most definitely NOT causally linked, right?

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Brett: Journalists’ excessive qualification of paraphrased quotes is particularly common and pernicious in descriptions of the results of scientific studies.

    I think it’s because they are going out of their way to make readers understand that they are not declaring that X causes (or does not cause) undesirable result Y, in order to avoid being sued by careless/barely literate readers.

    Suggest

    A few years ago I submitted a paper in which I wrote in my introduction (repeating a fairly well-known fact in the profession in order to set the stage) that Famous Linguist (no, not Chomsky) had discovered such and such resemblances between some languages, “which suggested that they were related”. The reviewer sent back the paper with a few comments, concluding that it was “unpublishable” because “the author declares that (those resemblances) are enough to prove the relationship”. I had not “declared” anything, or even “suggested” it, I had only quoted someone else’s tentative opinion. I did not pursue the matter, but was tempted to ask whether the addition of to Famous Linguist after suggested would (presto!) make the paper acceptable.

  8. @X: I apparently already had an argument about this (with D.O.) in the thread John Cowan linked. So I refer you that thread.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    I think it’s because they are going out of their way to make readers understand that they are not declaring that X causes (or does not cause) undesirable result Y, in order to avoid being sued by careless/barely literate readers.

    That is by far the most common use of the entire “present subjunctive” (“Konjunktiv I”) in modern German.

    whether the addition of to Famous Linguist after suggested would (presto!) make the paper acceptable

    I’m sure it would! By default, suggests in a scientific paper means “suggests to me” – on top of which the reviewer overcompensated for the fact that scientists tend to write suggests where normal people would say proves, and strongly suggests for proves beyond reasonable doubt.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Missing from the article: the sign language was in continuous use until the end of the monarchy, and is now extinct; it is unknown how much of it survives in today’s Turkish Sign language, which has an unusually large amount of arbitrary signs.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    David M: By default, suggests in a scientific paper means “suggests to me”

    I agree, but I did use the past tense, suggested, so that should have indicated that (even if I had earlier held this belief), I did not currently hold it.

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