MPT FEATURE

A language without words

Series 3 No.8 - Getting it Across

Niki Johnson thinks signing is natural. To deaf babies born of deaf parents it is the mother tongue. They babble in sign, their mothers sign them stories. Naturally then, sign will have its own poetry, strange to the hearing observer, but persuasive too: a language without words, the whole body’s language, movingly expressive.

It’s a particularly hard idea to get your head around, how little the written word means to a person born deaf. If the eyes can read, why cannot any reader’s heart and mind be moved and engaged? Why should it matter so much that you cannot hear, and have never heard, the words on the page? Though we learned a good deal on our visit to Derby, in discussion with Niki Johnson, the Deaf-Arts Officer, her interpreter Debbie Parkes and two of their colleagues, still we left feeling that we were only on the threshold of a terra incognita whose language is one without words.

Niki Johnson was born deaf, in a hearing family, and was taught to lip-read and speak. Then, leaving school, she came to the college in Derby and began to sign. We are aware that views differ, quite radically and vehemently, as to the relative benefits of lip-reading and signing, but that is not an argument we are qualified to pursue. Instead we shall concentrate on expressiveness, on how the deaf who are born deaf get themselves across. Niki felt constrained by her schooling; her gesture for that was sitting on her hands. She felt liberated by signing; her gesture for that was to release her hands and begin to use them. Brecht would have called that the Gestus of her situation before and after, its being made physically, concretely intelligible. By constraining then releasing  her hands, she made herself clear.

When you think of signing, you think of the hands. But watch Niki and Debbie in conversation and you see that the hands, though vital, are only a part of it. The face is wonderfully expressive; all the body is. This was very well put in a sentence  signed by Niki and translated by Debbie: ‘Everything is there in the person.’ The phrase ‘body language’, hackneyed almost to death, came alive before our eyes. And we realized how dull to a deaf and signing person the body language of the hearing and speaking must often be, how little we use of the body’s expressive power.

In Derby they distinguish firmly between the ‘deaf’ (those born deaf) and the ‘deafened’ (those made deaf by some occurrence or illness). The deafened, if they have had some years in which to read, will have accumulated a fund of associations embedded in the sound of words being said; and it is this fund that the truly deaf have no access to. It seems – that was our impression – very difficult indeed, and perhaps impossible, for a deaf person to begin, as an adult, to get access to the traditions of literature in the world. In that case at least, it seems you cannot recover what you have never had. And that is surely a loss and an impoverishment. It is hard for a hearing person who writes and reads poetry to imagine doing either without a sense of tradition; and that tradition, for centuries now, has been written not oral. Signing, since 2003, has been recognized as an official national language, but its poetic tradition, only beginning to be made, is neither the spoken nor the written word, but peformance, the extending and refining of expressiveness through the face, the hands, the whole body. ‘Everything is there in the person.’ It has to be watched.

The poem is composed in sign, without (if we understood correctly) there being any preliminary verbal phase of which the signing would, so to speak, be a translation. Indeed, translation of a written poem into sign is, on the evidence of our rough-and-ready experiments in Derby, a laborious and difficult business, being a passage not really from one language into another (though Niki constantly spoke of sign as her language and English as ours), but from one medium, or even from one way of being in the world, into another. A thing we take for granted – that many words in a poem will bear both a literal and a figurative freight – made a halt in translation again and again, while the double senses were disentangled. The epithet ‘bible-black’, for example; the well-known first line ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’; and even the comical idioms of everyday speech such as ‘Pigs might fly’ or  ‘Raining cats and dogs’, all had to be processed into intelligible sense, before they could be translated, or bettter, re-invented, re-created, in sign.

We were beginning to understand, by the time our discussions ended, that sign has among its resources many that language poets would acknowledge also as theirs: a grammar and syntax; degrees of clarity, rhythm and pace– all these not in words and their groupings and sounds, but in ‘a facial vocabulary’, a fluency and quickness of the hands, the disposition and movement of the body. A nuance, ambiguity or irony might be conveyed by the position of a little finger or the raising of one eyebrow, or the pointing of the chin. In poetry workshops participants would be tutored in the learnable things but also encouraged in inventiveness – in the varying of signs, for example, and the devising of new ones. A poem would go through drafts on video, not on paper.

Niki Johnson thinks signing is natural. To deaf babies born of deaf parents it is the mother tongue. They babble in sign, their mothers sign them stories. Naturally then, sign will have its own poetry, strange to the hearing observer, but persuasive too: a language without words, the whole body’s language, movingly expressive.

David and Helen Constantine
With grateful thanks to Niki Johnson, Debbie Parkes, Pauline Vernon and Catherine Rogers.

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