For deaf people, especially for those born deaf, this has been the best of quarter-centuries. The happy events have not been medical but social. The deaf have been irreversibly granted their own language. Sign languages are now known not to be parasitic on spoken ones, and not to be a form of pantomime, a kind of charades. They do not have anything much like the structure of any spoken language, but they have comparable expressive power. Nor has the breakthrough been the invention of some new and better kind of Signing: it has been the hard-won understanding that Signing is language. That understanding is rapidly changing the education and the life of the deaf. It is changing the languages themselves, for they are now free to flourish. They are no longer kept almost as secrets, admissible in personal relationships among deaf people but separated from the larger realm of human experience, thinking, knowledge and civilisation. This new understanding of Sign - as any of the natural and regional sign languages may be called - matters to all of us. It will, I think, have profound effects on what future generations think that language 'is'.
LRB 5 April 1990 | PDF Download