Dave Furstenau (MetaFilter’s RavinDave) sent me a link to an interesting Straight Dope column. A reader named Cathy asked:

In what language do deaf people think? I think in English, because that’s what I speak. But since deaf people cannot hear, they can’t learn how to speak a language. Nevertheless, they must think in some language. Would they think in English if they use sign language and read English? How would they do that if they’ve never heard the words they are signing or reading pronounced? Or maybe they just see words in their head, instead of hearing themselves?

Excerpts from Cecil’s reply:

The language of the deaf is a vast topic that has filled lots of books—one of the best is Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf by Oliver Sacks (1989). All I can do in this venue is sketch out a few basic propositions:
The folks at issue here are both (a) profoundly and (b) prelingually deaf. If you don’t become totally deaf until after you’ve acquired language, your problems are . . . well, not minor, but manageable. You think in whatever spoken language you’ve learned. Given some commonsense accommodation during schooling, you’ll progress normally intellectually. Depending on circumstances you may be able to speak and lip-read.
About one child in a thousand, however, is born with no ability to hear whatsoever… The profoundly, prelingually deaf can and do acquire language; it’s just gestural rather than verbal. The sign language most commonly used in the U.S. is American Sign Language, sometimes called Ameslan or just Sign. Those not conversant in Sign may suppose that it’s an invented form of communication like Esperanto or Morse code. It’s not. It’s an independent natural language, evolved by ordinary people and transmitted culturally from one generation to the next. It bears no relationship to English and in some ways is more similar to Chinese—a single highly inflected gesture can convey an entire word or phrase. (Signed English, in which you’ll sometimes see words spelled out one letter at a time, is a completely different animal.) Sign can be acquired effortlessly in early childhood—and by anyone, not just the deaf (e.g., hearing children of deaf parents). Those who do so use it as fluently as most Americans speak English. Sign equips native users with the ability to manipulate symbols, grasp abstractions, and actively acquire and process knowledge—in short, to think, in the full human sense of the term…
The answer to your question is now obvious. In what language do the profoundly deaf think? Why, in Sign (or the local equivalent), assuming they were fortunate enough to have learned it in infancy. The hearing can have only a general idea what this is like—the gulf between spoken and visual language is far greater than that between, say, English and Russian. Research suggests that the brain of a native deaf signer is organized differently from that of a hearing person. Still, sometimes we can get a glimpse. Sacks writes of a visit to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where hereditary deafness was endemic for more than 250 years and a community of signers, most of whom hear normally, still flourishes. He met a woman in her 90s who would sometimes slip into a reverie, her hands moving constantly. According to her daughter, she was thinking in Sign. “Even in sleep, I was further informed, the old lady might sketch fragmentary signs on the counterpane,” Sacks writes. “She was dreaming in Sign.”

I find that a fascinating idea, for some reason: dreaming in Sign.


  1. i find signing really interesting in general, and i have a lot of questions about it. regarding dreaming in sign, i wonder if signers find themselves creating signs unconsciously while awake. also, is there something analogous to freudian slips among signers? do signers’ hands tend to rest in commonly used words the way my hands will automatically complete certain words in typing through physical memory? is it possible for someone who can both sign and hear and speak to carry on two different conversations at the same time?

  2. Good questions. Any signers reading this, please comment!

  3. Great questions, and one of the problems that we have about thinking about this is that we have the illusion that the connection between our spoken language and our written language is seamless. For instance, one may think that a deaf child might make a mistake similar to a hearing child writing the letter ‘J’ backwards. But because sign language is gestural, the kind of mistakes you are going to get are more like a child saying ‘fwow’ for ‘throw’. These mistakes can be explained by the fact that the child doesn’t have muscular control to produce, say, an interdental fricative, so uses the closest approximation.
    Sherman Wilcox at the U of New Mexico has done a lot of work in dealing with signed language, working to get it admitted as a foreign language requirement in universities. He has co-authored a book entitled _Learning to See_ which discusses how to teach signed languages. Here is a pdf of the introduction, with some interesting history on the subject.

  4. I can’t speak to unconscious slips (and I didn’t seem to observe any in near native signers–I say near native here, because many Deaf people simply don’t learn Sign very young, unfortunately–when I was learning it), but there is Sign babble in babies. It’s often interpreted as meaningful a little early, just like babble in hearing infants [laugh]. And, of course, people do think “out loud”, as it were.
    I think a parallel with Chinese is… strange. I mean, tones are just another phonological element, not really inflection (and Chinese, like English, is an isolating language)–I’d say the parallel’s closer to Turkish, Hungarian, or Cayuga or Mohawk: highly inflected, or perhaps agglutinative.
    And Sign does bear the marks of English, actually: or at least ASL does, even pure ASL. The sign for “no”, actually, comes from the English spelling, as do first-letter modifiers, like the C-hand shape phoneme on the “group” sign for “class”. And JSL seems to bear some effects from Japanese as well…. (I tend to associate ASL with Japanese, because of the topic/comment structure, actually. Well, and learning them concurrently. Although my ASL is limited to the point of being useless.)
    Oh, and it does well to remember that not all thought is verbal, as rotation speed experiments have shown. (And sometimes it’s half-verbal, as anyone with tip-of-the-tongue experiences knows… I thought I might have seen a paper on tip-of-the-tongue in signers, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.)

  5. Actually, Joe, that reminds me of something my Sign teacher told us, about native Sign spelling mistakes. Native English speakers tend to make spelling errors related to phonology, but native Signers tend to make spelling mistakes related to shape. Which would indicate that (as makes sense) they don’t associate written words with phonetic words. I guess an equivalent might be with a native alphabetic language speaker learning written Chinese or Japanese. Sometimes students pick up the meaning of the graph/eme before the associated verbal word.

  6. I second the recommendation of Seeing Voices. In the bit on Martha’s Vinyard, he notes that hearing people slip in and out of sign while talking among themselves. And of course people mumble to themselves in sign. I’ve often wished I knew sign language when trying to communicate in a club or a bar where the music’s loud.
    By the way, there apparently is something called Baby Sign, but I can’t get any of the links to work. I blame effing IE.

  7. The theory behind that is that children can work the hands before the oral motor control is good enough for language, and will get less frustrated with communication if they’re given a non-oral method. (I’m not convinced, and seems rather faddish to me, but…) I’m sure there are books and articles on it.

  8. Kristina wrote:
    Native English speakers tend to make spelling errors related to phonology, but native Signers tend to make spelling mistakes related to shape.
    I think this is related to the research into SL ‘phonology’ (the scare quotes are just to note that the word we use is so strongly situated in spoken language, not to cast doubt on the notion). In spoken language phonology, there is a postulated feature ‘tree’ in which features (place, manner and voicing for consonants for example) are placed in a hierarchical relationship and ASL researchers have made really interesting case for a corresponding feature tree in ASL. I haven’t kept up with the research, and this was almost 15 years ago, but this would explain your teacher’s observation.
    You mention that you are studying ASL. How are the handshapes taught? I would think that knowing the feature tree would provide a useful scaffold for teaching ASL.

  9. Speaking of books and articles, look here. (I can’t look myself, not being affiliated with a university, but the titles and summaries of articles like The Life and Times of the French Deaf Leader, Ferdinand Berthier: An Analysis of His Early Career [“Berthier was a pioneer for deaf education and the use of sign language in the 1820s and 1830s. He defended the work of his teacher and mentor, Auguste Bébian, the linguist who systematized the study of French sign language. Berthier was also instrumental in forging a greater Deaf community by instigating the banquet movement that annually celebrated the birthday of Abbé de l’Epée.”] and How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language [“This historical account of the development of the manual alphabet in ASL (and of representational systems in other sign languages) traces fingerspelling back to the monks of the seventh century, who devised a system for representing speech without needing to speak.”] are at least intriguing.)

  10. They certainly are, and may I add that your use of nested brackets is impeccable.

  11. Wow, quite a topic for a Straight Dope column. I think Cecil did a commendable job, considering.
    My problem with the original question is that I don’t believe anyone thinks in a language. I may be picking semantic nits here, but in my estimation, thought is prelinguistic, and is translated* to language–most times almost seamlessly. However, there is no perfect mapping from thought to language, as illustrated above by “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome”, and as experienced by anyone who has read a passage from a great writer and said to themselves, “That’s exactly how I felt; why couldn’t I express it as well?”
    Semantics aside, a deaf friend of mine dislikes the Sacks book. Instead, she recommends The Mask of Benevolence by Harlan Lane. Her complaints are mostly about the way that Sacks approaches the social and cultural experience (Deaf as community vs. deaf as disability), however, this is at the core of a completely tangential and highly charged debate that I’ll not pursue in this thread.
    One other point, regarding the typology of ASL. It’s actually derived from Old French Sign Language, “[s]o if you know ASL, you’re better off taking a vacation in France than in England!” (Read that page, as it looks like a nice collection of ASL information.)
    Suffice it to say, deafness and signing are rich, fascinating topics. They are ripe with implications for socio- and cognitive linguistics, and all self-respecting linguists should spend some time getting to know the literature.
    *The term “translated” here should not be read narrowly, as one makes a translation of a book or a poem from one natural language to another, but more broadly, as in the notion that all understanding is translation from the speaker’s to the hearer’s idiolect/sign system.

  12. Dan: Thanks very much for both your comments and the link, which is indeed rich in information. A couple of paragraphs:
    Sign languages develop specific to their communities and is not universal. For example, ASL is totally different from British Sign Language even though both countries speak English. Many people consider it a shame that there isn’t a universal sign language (see below), however it’s also a shame that there isn’t a universal spoken language, right? I personally enjoy seeing the great variety and diversity of languages and the first topic of conversation when I meet a Deaf person from another country is an exchange of vocabulary: “How do you sign this? How do you sign that?”
    Interesting, however, American Sign Language shares many vocabulary terms with Old French Sign Language (LSF) because a French Deaf man, Laurent Clerc, was one of the first teachers of the Deaf in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. So if you know ASL, you’re better off taking a vacation in France than in England! But the French connection to America is rare, most sign languages develop independently and each country (and in some cases, each city) has their own sign language.
    Fascinating stuff.

  13. Since the British Sign Language mention made it into the comments, I’ll share that I watched Four Weddings and a Funeral with this same deaf friend. The Hugh Grant character’s brother is deaf and Hugh and he spend the whole movie signing. My friend, an ASL signer, thought it was hilarious and couldn’t understand a “word” of it. 🙂
    P.S. In looking up the aforementioned film on IMDB, I came across their listing of films with Sign Language dialogue. It seems relevant to the current discussion that they don’t split out the various sign languages into separate categories.

  14. Dan makes an interesting comment about thought being prelinguistic.
    I think that the thinking in question is what we commonly refer to as speaking to one’s self.
    I would imagine that when a hearing/speaking individual is speaking to himself/herself, he/she is subvocalizing thought. It might not be a stretch to think of a deaf/mute person as subgesturing thought. They would perform much of the same cognitive processes as they would for signing, but never fully gesture. This is much like a person thinking in words performs much of the same cognitive processs as they would for speaking, but never fully vocalize.
    This is all conjecture from me, I don’t claim to hold any definitive answers. However, this would explain the tendancies to subconsciously gesture Sign, much like hearing/speaking individuals might subconsciously mutter.

  15. As for baby sign language:
    My son is one year old now and my wife and I have toyed with the idea of teaching him Sign. My boss taught each of his three children Sign when they were babies. This is not “Baby Sign,” but ASL. His children were all able to communicate many things clearly with Sign by the time they were a little over a year old. I don’t know any babies that were able to speak as many things clearly by that age.
    In observing my son’s development, I have noticed that he has an easier time learning words that have gestures attached to them. He’s only a year old and is hardly adept at speaking, but we know very well when he’s trying to say certain words by the gestures he makes. “Bye bye” and “hi” were the earliest he picked up on, and are what inspired us to keep an eye out for this type of learning.
    Now, it may not be that Sign is easier for babies to learn than speaking (though they are more articulate with their hands before they are with their voices). I do believe, however, that the combination of sounds with gesture helps to reinforce the meaning of the words.

  16. I’ve been reading these comments out to Dr Partner, and he says, re Kirsten’s comment:
    The theory behind that is that children can work the hands before the oral motor control is good enough for language, and will get less frustrated with communication if they’re given a non-oral method. (I’m not convinced, and seems rather faddish to me, but…) I’m sure there are books and articles on it.
    The point about motor control is exactly correct, not a fad at all. He was working with a mother and her child with Down’s Syndrome only last week – the mother taught her child to sign from birth and he had his first “word” at seven months. Much easier to articulate with hands than mouths at that age.

  17. It would seem thought is a broad enough category to include things as simple as a remembered phrase, a rehearsed speech, or self-narration, and as complex as the geometric cascade of entirely abstract reasoning. Maybe an XY graph, or a topographical map would be an accurate representation of the distribution of types of thought.
    I’ve had more than one intelligent person insist that all thought was verbal, an astonishing statement the first three times I heard it.
    Maybe our individual experiences at that level are profoundly different.
    Hearing thinkers have written word shapes and spoken word sounds to assemble cognitively.
    Maybe the prelingual deaf, because of the shape-only nature of their symbols, are closer to that type of non-linguistic purely abstract thought.
    Maybe it’s a right/left brain thing?

    A beautiful thread.
    Now to track down rotation speed experiments…

  18. The problem about such a discussion is thinking about thinking. Is it a word? is it a mentalese gavagai? no, it’s whirlydog

  19. I was born deaf and (swedish) sign language is my primary language, so here’s my observations…
    Misspellings in sign language during the childhood years exist and are mostly, as joe tomei guessed, due to inadequate muscular control. And then it’s usually forming the hand shape that presents the largest difficulty.
    As for thinking… that’s a complex and interesting question. I do dream in sign language and my parents have mentioned that I sometimes signed vaguely during dreams when I was young.
    And subvocalizing/subgesturing… I guess I do indeed think in sign then… especially if I’m preparing for a speech, interview or something like that. However, if I’m thinking about how to write something I think in that language(in written form, of course)
    But as for thinking in general… As sign language is a bit limited language – there are many words that doesn’t have a sign – I think I think in a mixture of gestures and the word I associate with a concept. Sometimes the word is in english, sometimes swedish. Also I think I actually think the gesture and word at the same time…
    One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I don’t think in fingerspelling when thinking of a word that doesn’t have a sign – that’d be too awkward.
    So I guess I just think of how the word looks like or something like that.. *shrugs*
    An interesting phenomenon is how deaf people write. They don’t make many misspellings but grammar mistakes are much more prevalent. Especially wrong tenses and sentence structure… Which seem to indicate thinking in sign language.
    I know that when thinking stuff like “Ouch, this stuff is very difficult” I don’t think the word “very” – I use the sign language method of intensifying “difficult”..(hard to explain how that’s done without making a mess of it, I’m afraid… but generally we sign the sign faster or slower depending on the concept and also more exaggerated… usually there’s a lot of changes on the face expression… more intense)
    I’ll think a bit more about this and may do a followup post, but feel free to ask questions – I’ll do my best to answer them.
    (oops, sorry for the long post…)

  20. Please don’t apologize — hearing from deaf people is one of the things I was most hoping for from this post, and I’ll be grateful for any further thoughts! Anybody have specific questions for gwyddon?

  21. Gwyddon-
    When you look ahead, at the future, not some specific day or time but the open-ended thing your life is, is there a picture? What does it look like?

  22. Michael Farrris says

    gwyddon: “I know that when thinking stuff like “Ouch, this stuff is very difficult” I don’t think the word “very” – I use the sign language method of intensifying “difficult”..(hard to explain how that’s done without making a mess of it, I’m afraid… but generally we sign the sign faster or slower depending on the concept and also more exaggerated… usually there’s a lot of changes on the face expression… more intense)”
    Bellugi and Klima’s book from 1980 or so describe this process in detail for ASL.
    Adjectives have something like 12 different aspectual distinctions that vary by if the sign is repeated and if so what kind of repitition (number of repitions, size, shape and rhythm of repitions, the tenseness of the muscles etc.)The ‘very’ process in ASL involves tensing the muscles, holding the beginning of the sign and then a single very rapid movement (muscle tension throughout the sign).
    The discovered this more or less by accident after years of research on sign language. Deaf people involved in the research had unconscious knowledge of the system and had tried to explain couldn’t articulate it. And the eyes of the hearing researchers just weren’t trained enough. (Eye training is absolutely essential for hearing people who want to learn a natural sign language).
    Scott Liddell is usually credited for the first description of non-manual (facial) signing behavior. His assignment was to define the sentence in ASL and he found he couldn’t if he limited himself to manual signs. Finally he brought in the facial movements that were coordinated with signs and he could define sentences and many types of clauses. Again, in retrospect, deaf people had been trying to explain this to him but lacked the conscious awareness of the system as a system.
    I was involved in research on the natural sign language used by Deaf people in Poland for several years and people signing to themselves isn’t a rare phenomenon in my experience. One memorable example was a friend who got very drunk at a big party. In the short time between making a public jerk of himself and passing out completely, he sat in a chair with his eyes closed signing to himself (as with hearing people in the same situation, it was distorted and tended toward jibberish).
    My impression is that there is more than one way to think in a sign language just as in spoken language. The equivalent of people who think in words is thinking gestures (that one produces not that one sees) though I never was really proficient enough to think in sign (but then I don’t think in Polish either, even though I’m very fluent).

  23. msg: Well… I don’t have a clear image of how my life is going to be… But I’m now studying for a MSc in Engineering Physics(yes, with sign language interpreters all the time) so hopefully I’ll be able to find an interesting job when I’m done that’ll make good use of my interests and knowledge. I know communication will be an issue but these times email and other digital communication methods are making face-to-face communication less necessary. And for those few necessary meetings I can get interpreters.
    I’ve been thinking – now I think that when I think, I do so in concepts and then the brain translates to whatever language I’m using.
    But sign language, being the first language I learned, sometimes “overflow” and influence the translation process.
    I noticed that I forgot to reply to some questions:
    – Hm, making signs unconsciously when awake… I don’t know – it wouldn’t be unconsciously if I knew 🙂
    But, just as some hearing people sometimes mutter a few words, some of us do that too. For example, when I’m busy at some math/physics problem I might “mutter” with my hands.
    – Yes, we do make freudian slips, although I get the impression that it happens less often for us. I don’t know why, and my impression may be wrong.
    – Hands preparing for a later sign.. well, a form of it exists, but it’s not easy to see for the untrained eye.
    – Yes, I sometimes had to give urgent messages to one of my parents when he was on the phone and he/she could usually pick it up and reply while still doing a conversation with the other end. However the question/statement from me has to be a very simple one, and the answer I’ll get will also be a very simple one. They often have a higher priority on the spoken communication – if somebody says something to them while I’m signing they often switch to listening instead of watching me regardless of how important or unimportant the spoken communication is. Quite irritating, but I’ve grown accustomed to getting cut off in the middle of a conversation with a hearing.
    – As for Sacks’ book… well, he’s mostly interested in the unusual cases. So the book is mostly about prelingual deaf individuals that learns sign language quite late in their development cycles. These days most children that are deaf are found and taught sign language very early – at least here in Sweden. I don’t know how the situation looks like in other countries.
    So it isn’t a particularly useful book for understanding deaf people as we exist in today’s world, but it is still a quite interesting book for deaf with late development in language skills.

  24. Gwyddon, once established in your technical field you might write a book about these questions.
    Your English strikes me as native-speaker level. I went through again and spotted a couple of errors, but I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t the kind of editing errors I often make on the net.
    I don’t know any details, but your experience speaks pretty well for the Swedish welfare state, also. Though I am predisposed in its favor anyway.

  25. Gwyddon-
    I had written a longer question, more detailed, but it had too many first-person pronouns in it. Later I thought the question as I asked it seemed too vague.
    I mean what it actually looks like. Not so much the hopes and dreams, as important as they are, as the structure of the image itself.
    When I look, or when I think about the actual stretch of time my future is/will be, I see a long chain of things like glass doors in a line, like dominoes, each door having shifting images and colors, all against a thick backdrop, a dark space but thick with something, kind of a deep dark chocolate-colored space with a long line of kaleidoscopic glass dominoes stretching out toward a vanishing point.
    That’s been there since I was very young. It doesn’t have a lot of verbal affect attached or, seemingly, causing it. Though the chopped-up days of the calendar are an obvious primary source. At the same time there’s this sense, or feeling, like a river or a wind going out from where I am toward or through those. But I didn’t want to write something that had 11 instances of the word ‘I’ in it.
    So really what it was was, I was wondering if your own ‘vision’ of the future was anything like that.

  26. I’ve never had a “vision” of the future in that sense, just a sense that I was going to go on learning more, meeting new people, and having experiences I could have no advance conception of. But then I’m not a very visual person.

  27. Oh, I see.
    Well, I don’t quite have such a detailed vision of time. I just have a vague vision/notion of a line stretching into infinity. That’s all – I’m not a particularly visual person either.

  28. From the top! lol!
    >Nevertheless, they must think in some language
    Yes .. their native sign language. They *see* sign.
    >Do signers make Freudian slips? You better believe it!
    >If you don’t become totally deaf until after you’ve acquired language
    No. 1 misconception of hearing people .. that deaf people dont acquire ‘language’. WRONG! They may not acquire *spoken/heard* language – but they most certainly can acquire language. Most hearing people do not seperate *speech* from *language*, but they are different concepts… speech is simply a mode of communicating language .. and sign is another.
    >Given some commonsense accommodation during schooling, you’ll progress normally intellectually
    Absolutely no reason why a deaf child with sign language cant do the same thing, as the Swedish model shows.
    >And Sign does bear the marks of English, actually: or at least ASL does, even pure ASL. The sign for “no”, actually, comes from the English spelling
    Yes .. but native signers dont make this association .. it is just the shape that they think of.
    >The theory behind that is that children can work the hands before the oral motor control is good
    Yes … in the past scientists thought that humans didnt actually develop the ability to conceive in linguistical concepts before we learned to speak. But children of signing deaf adults often start to communicate simple concepts as early as 7 months. I have personally witnessed babies signing ‘more’ (an easy sign in Auslan, and often the first word! lol!), and make approximations at ‘enough’, ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ at 7 months.
    Psychophysiologists have discovered that all language, sign or otherwise, is in the same part of the brain… there is no difference between a ‘deaf’ brain and a ‘hearing’ brain in terms of where the language is processed.
    >deaf/mute person
    Not going to go on about this, because I understand you are referring to a deaf person who doesnt use spoken language, but Deaf people generally dont like the phrases ‘mute’ or ‘dumb’ .. ‘signing deaf’is preferred , as it refers to what is DONE rather than what is not.
    Just my two cents worth .. oh, and by the way, this thread has just been posted to an international deaf email list, so you may have many more comments here soon.

  29. Re: Freudian sign slips
    As an interpreter (English/American Sign Language, not to be confused with Australian — the other ASL!) I have noticed that we Hearings tend to make these slips MUCH more often than Deaf people. An example that I struggled with early on: password. It’s signed as PRIVATE + WORD which have totally different handshapes. I would tend to use the same handshape for both and it would come out GAY + WORD. I’m not sure it was Freudian the first time, but I was so embarrased by the gaffe that from then on if it popped up it was because I was thinking so hard about not making the mistake again. Maybe that part was Freudian?
    At any rate, I don’t think that I’m the only one who makes mistakes based on handshape. I do know that is how I store my sign vocabulary; CHOCOLATE and CHURCH only have the movement parameter that are different so I file them togother in my mind. Perhaps someone who stores their sign vocabulary differently would make different types of errors?
    Fascinating thread! So glad it was cross-posted so that I could read it.

  30. “deaf/mute person” was referring to a person that is either deaf or mute. Hearing, mute individuals in many ways are another matter entirely, but they are also likely to communicate in sign.
    Yes, maybe I should have said “signing deaf or signing mute person” to be more clear and sensitive.

  31. Interesting discussion. I’m in agreement with Dan that it’s a classic fallacy to assume that thought is primarily linguistic in nature. The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is one example of why thought is not synonymous with language, but it’s a weak one because one might conjecture that the thought is still linguistic in structure and that merely the phonological representation of a word is missing. But there’s plenty of thought that isn’t remotely linguistic. Do we recognize faces in English (or Basque or Tamil or Sign)? Do we drive through traffic in English? Play the piano? Remember a caress? Estimate which of two objects is more voluminous? Adjust the seasoning in the soup? Take in a painting? Experience regret?
    Here’s how I understand that modern cognitive science sees it. Our brains aren’t general-purpose machines with a single mechanism that suffices for all of their functions. In fact they are complex collections of quite different faculties with more or less specific purposes — what Steven Pinker calls “organs”, although by that he doesn’t mean that they are organs that would show up under a pathologist’s scalpel (maybe he should have called them “virtual organs”). Different faculties can work together in complex ways for a particular cognitive task. Some tasks involve language and some don’t. Often we can provide a linguistic narrative — a director’s commentary track, if you will — on a cognitive process and we may sometimes assume that the commentary is the process; usually we’d be wrong.
    Now back to language and the deaf. As illuminating as it is to consider the cognition of people whose primary language is Sign, there is another category of the deaf to consider: people without language at all. A book I keep meaning to get ahold of is Susan Schaller’s A Man Without Words, about a profoundly deaf man who grew up in rural Mexico without access to any language, spoken, signed or written. If language were essential to thought you’d expect such a person to be severely demented, but Schaller actually found him to be “obviously intelligent and sharply observant” according to the dust jacket. The lack of language affected his ability to communicate but not his ability to think.

  32. Fascinating — please report back when you’ve read it!

  33. Just discovered this great Kafka quote at wood s lot — not directly relevant, but I can’t resist copying it:
    “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

  34. I’m a hearing person who uses BSL. I learned as an adult but I’ve always ‘thought’ in pictures. I can and do think in English, I have to to write.
    Fruedian slip – yes on one famous occasion I was chatting (in sign) to someone about organising an Ann Summers party. In BSL there are regional variations, and the sign used for ‘organise’ in Scotland is a crude sign in England which could be approximated as “shag” or “F**k”. Anyway I inadvertantly used the Scotish sign in the contest of ‘organise’.
    Nicaraguan Sign Language is facinating. There was no significant Deaf population in Nicaragua (Deaf is used in the deaf community to mean someone who is part of the community and signs, deaf refers to somone who cannot hear but who isn’t part of the community) Anyway when the US banned exports to Nicaragua one thing which was banned was anti biotics. Nicaragua had to use older drugs which were available but which caused deafness. So suddenly there was a population of deaf children. The first deaf schools were set up etc. But the facinating thing is that the children developed sign language, they didn’t learn it from teachers or parents and it is a language.

  35. I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.
    Quoth Nabokov.

  36. hi:)
    I have question about the person of feaf ;
    can we devloment his thinking throw traning ?

  37. Hi,
    I am Deaf Studies student who is doing a research paper on the difference between the Deaf community in Sweden and American.
    Does anyone know how the services and support for Deaf people in Sweden is different than the support that Deaf people receive in the United States?
    Thanks for any input on this.

  38. I was actually looking for more info on a documentary I watched a while ago on amazing babies or something like that, about all the development that takes place in the first few years of life, they had many interesting stories but it was the last one that interested me the most and I just found the person that I need to share it with. It was about the children of 2 profoundly deaf parents, and I noticed someone mentioned signing “mummy” at 7 months, their daughter first signed mummy at 5 months by which time her 2 year old brother could communicate in sign language with his parents, which they said the father could understand but it was when his son signed a question about a signed conversation from several weeks prior that he was truly amazed and his sister learned the same skill, they then started mouthing words to hearing people. Infants lack the ability to speak physically, and there voicebox is too high early on to do anything, so they can breath and drink, mouth can route to stomach so fluid doesn’t enter lungs. They are proof that children are capable of so much more than we give then credit for, they can talk but just not using verbal language, I remember my friend telling me if I came over and rang the doorbell if he wasn’t home a light notified his parents to answer the door.

  39. A Man Without Words is indeed an amazing story about someone who learns his L1 (ASL) at age 27. It’s not clear how fluent he is; perhaps no better than hearing people who grow up without language (Genie etc.), who master some vocabulary but never get the hang of producing consistently grammatical sentences.

  40. Somewhere around the seventh hit when Googling my name is a man who runs the Deaf Studies/Deaf Education Program at Fresno State University.

  41. David Marjanović says

    When I look, or when I think about the actual stretch of time my future is/will be, I see a long chain of things like glass doors in a line, like dominoes, each door having shifting images and colors, all against a thick backdrop, a dark space but thick with something, kind of a deep dark chocolate-colored space with a long line of kaleidoscopic glass dominoes stretching out toward a vanishing point.

    …That’s called syn(a)esthesia. It’s fairly common, but far from universal. I, for one, have nothing remotely comparable to your vision.

  42. John Cowan says

    Futility Closet (a great site) on some modern monkish signs.

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