There’s a fascinating discussion at the site I Love Everything (with which I was previously unfamiliar, but whose name definitely appeals to me) that began with the question “How do the deaf interpret rhyme?” Along with some understandable defensiveness from deaf people interpreting it as implying they should value rhyme in some way, it became a very interesting exchange of ideas; this in particular brings up things I had never thought about and would like to know more about:

There are entirely different patterns by which poetry & narrative are constructed in the deaf community. A deaf person can of course read conventional poetry, with rhyme and all that, but it tends not to carry the same weight or interest that sign-specific stories & poetry do.

There is an enormously rich “oral” tradition (ie, carried on exclusively through signing and not written down) in the deaf community that is pretty much entirely unknown to the hearing world. I recently wrote a screenplay for an animated program for deaf children my ex is producing for p b s. I wrote the scenario, which was then translated into ASL by her and by the deaf actors doing improvisations (they filmed it in rotoscope). My original script almost completely vanished, since the puns and jokes and signifiers and the interesting patterns they can be put into are so hugely different from written speech.

The deaf world is really a self-sustaining alternate universe, with its own cultural codes and achievements. Hearing-based formal elements, like rhyme, are largely irrelevant to them and it’s a common mistake (one I used to make as well; I’m not trying to scold you) to assume they value, or should value, the same things we do.

— chester (goth_casua…), July 25th, 2003

This gives me the sense of an entire cultural world about which I know nothing, like when I first began to realize the riches of Persian civilization. So many worlds, so little time—how can people ever get bored?


  1. There’s also more to poetic prosody than rhyme and meter. Similar to rhyme, there’s assonance and alliteration (AKA head rhyme). There’s also visual rhyme, (i.e., words that look similar but don’t really rhyme). The thing that most interests me about ASL is the very different medium of the language: kinesiological vs phonological. I think there are some important contributions that ASL (and other deaf languages) can make to the folks studying “universal grammar,” starting with Saussure’s principle of the linear nature of the signifier.

  2. I’ve wondered some of the same things. (Actually, I had a lengthy discussion with a prof once on how tone deaf Chinese people can learn to speak correctly. She said she didn’t know, but that it didn’t seem to make much difference.) If I had the time, I would like to learn sign language just to get an idea what it means to talk about words and morphemes without sound.
    I do recall hearing once about an effort to create a written form of sign language in order to preserve and propagate “oral” sign literature. The thought that occurred to me at the time was to wonder if deaf people might not appreciate aliteration – or at least aliterated graphemes – in lieu of rhymes.

  3. A new book just came out that might be of interest to you:
    Many Ways to Be Deaf:
    “A collection of 15 articles on Deaf communities
    from 14 countries with an intro by me placing all of these into historical perspective.”

  4. Ooops. The Intro is not by “me” but by the person who sent that e-mail to a list I subscribe. Copied and pasted without checking!

  5. A bit OT, but this reminds me of the Oliver Sacks article in the latest (28 July) New Yorker, on the retention or non- of visualization in the blind.

  6. This is what I have been looking for. I want to translate english poetry into ASL. But it occured to me, wouldn’t it be better to draw an idea as one page in a book or one or two lines of a poem as one page? Wouldn’t that translate better?

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