Part 72: Disability Corner: Nicaraguan Sign Language
Decoy Badger posted:
Apparently Japanese Sign Language fingerspelling is partly based on the American Sign Language alphabet. Oddly, the remaining signs mostly emulate katakana rather than hiragana. It's also used less often than the ASL equivalent, mostly for loanwords, so I guess that explains why it's katakana.
So that scene with the alphabet could very well have played out in Japanese with the exact same material.
The history of sign languages is pretty neat since it's somewhat rare to see mass education curriculums and imperialism have such a profound effect on natural language use. Black ASL is probably the most famous example, but I'd love to hear about others!
I was going to wait until tomorrow but .
Disability Corner: Nicaraguan Sign Language
Before we begin, just as a reminder: in the world of Deafness, lowercase-D deaf refers to the condition of not being able to hear, while uppercase-D Deaf refers to members of the global culture formed by people who are deaf. Likewise, hearing refers to the physical condition and Hearing refers to the broader culture. My research implied Deaf applies specifically to members of the modern global community and not other coherent communities of deaf people, but I went ahead and used it like it did in the rest of this disability corner for reasons that should quickly become clear. I will, of course, change this paragraph (and the whole disability corner, on that subject or otherwise) if someone points out I fucked it up, but keep all this in mind as we go forward.
Anyway, Charles-Michel de l'Épée, a French abbot who founded the worlds first school for the deaf, usually gets the credit for inventing sign language. Thats Not true. While he developed a sign language, it was complicated, impractical, and usually passed over by his students in favor of a complete, preexisting sign language from Parisian slums that inspired him to invent his system in the first place. Modern French Sign Language, born as Deaf students adapted bits of l'Épées system to cover some gaps and developed it further on their own, forms the root of most of the worlds sign languages, just adapted to match local conditions; American Sign Language, for instance, is a blend of FSL and the sign language developed by the Deaf community of Marthas Vineyard.
The origins of language are poorly understood in general (lack of contemporary records), but the origins of naturally-developed sign languages are even more obscure. Nobody knows how far back Old French Sign Language goes, after all; the Hearing world didnt notice it until long after the Deaf community of Paris adopted it. Hell, its only one of many sign languages developed by primarily deaf communities. But nobody took notes, and nobody expects to see a new one pop out of the earth so they can study how people put it (or any other kind of language) together.
Except in Nicaragua.
So, its the late 70s and the new governments promised universal education for all children in the country. That includes deaf kids, and so they set up two specialty schools in the capital of Managua, one in 77 and one in 83, for an eventual total of 400-odd students. The teachers they hire all use a mixture of oralism, a type of education emphasizing lipreading, speech training, and trying to prepare students to assimilate with society, and a Soviet-gifted system of fingerspelling Spanish. Problem is, oralism alone doesnt fucking work. Maybe 1 in 10 students actually get to the point where they can make themselves understood through speech, and maybe 1 in 25 can lipread well enough to function in ordinary conversation and thats for teachers with more training, funding, and experience than the Nicaraguan program could find. And, without any success in teaching Spanish that way, they couldnt hope to make headway with that fingerspelling. So yeah, they mostly failed. They did notice, though, that their kids seemed to using some kind of homemade hand gesture pidgin with each other, but since they couldnt make heads or tails of it they eventually threw up their arms and brought in an expert, a freshly-PhDd linguist out of MIT named Judy Kegl.
Kegl came from a very, very different background than the teachers they had on the ground when it came to linguistics and Deaf education. Shed learned in school about the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, the first major meeting of deaf education experts in 1880 (the first one was teeny and didnt get much done). While a couple of Deaf people were invited along, all of the voting members were Hearing and many of them were borderline (or outright) eugenicists. Like, for example, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, whose wife and mother were both deaf. The guy who had this to say about deaf people forming relationships:
Alexander Graham Bell posted:
Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the Deaf with the object of applying a remedy.
He wrote a whole book full of this shit. And he was a voting delegate. Anyway, he and his ideological allies voted to formally condemn manualism (teaching sign language) and promptly sent Deaf education into a nosedive across the world for nearly a century: they didnt manage to kill sign language entirely, but they exiled it to a few iconoclast or cash-strapped schools and rooms at night when outsiders werent watching. Kegl started studying linguistics right as a new wave of sign language advocates, now largely Deaf themselves, pushed back and earned the worlds sign languages a measure of recognition theyd never had before, as actual, natural languages.
Granted, Kegl probably wasnt thinking about all that when she arrived, because it wasnt until well after she started working with these kids that she realized their teachers made the same mistake l'Épée did. See, he didnt see a coherent language when he looked Old French Sign Language, its not like he had the training necessary to recognize it. He wanted and expected them to speak French, and OFSL wasnt French; it was a language developed by Deaf people entirely separately from the Hearing people around them, a language isolate emerging in one of the worlds largest cities. He just saw a beautiful but primitive stopgap measure he dismissed in favor of his pet conlang, which is now mostly a footnote.
Kegl was told the kids used a limited communication system to pass along important information, home sign writ large and that was mostly true, at least for the older kids, the ones who were school-aged before they got there. But by the time she arrived, the program had been in place for eight years, long enough for kids still at the point of language acquisition to come in, borrow that system, develop it, and share it with the next generation. She found herself trying to learn an entirely original language younger than some of the kids who spoke it, something no scholar had ever pulled off.
So Kegl found herself at a crossroads. Option A was doing what most experts would have done, teaching these kids American Sign Language and helping them adapt it to their needs. It had been done before successfully all over the globe; she could have hooked them into a global community that could offer them resources and support. But she was a product of the cultural turn, the paradigm shift that introduced postmodernism to the social sciences and instilled an emphasis on personal experience and minority issues that characterizes much of academia to this day. She was studying linguistics when an American professor convinced the Malaysian government to suppress a similar Deaf schoolchildren-developed language in favor of an ASL variant. She studied under Noam Chomsky, for fucks sake. So, instead of engaging in the linguistic imperialism of promoting American Sign Language worldwide, she settled on learning the language from the kids, teaching it to their teachers, and making sure the resulting curriculum held together before heading back to the US to make her career on her findings. Shes been accused ever since of treating these kids like lab rats to isolate the variables for her research and criticized for not looping them into the broader Deaf community, which I guess is fair, but her critics are the sort of people who bring their best to the New York Times to say she had to have the conscience of Josef Mengele not to teach them ASL (paywall, I found the quote elsewhere and confirmed it by spotting the line before the block kicked in). As someone who lost relatives in Auschwitz, get fucked, theres no more efficient way to convince me youre full of shit. E: the secondary source distorted the quote, he said that about some whod set those circumstances up intentionally and deliberately doesnt apply that to Kegl. Remember, kids, always check your sources .
Anyway, that language is now known as Idioma de Signos Nicaragense (ISN), the official sign language of Nicaragua. Its as complicated and idiosyncratic as any other natural language, with a sentence structure hinging on massive compound verbs, a full raft of dirty words, older speakers complaining about how kids these days talk, and a habit of describing locations in relation to bus stops. Just like Old French Sign Language, ISN has nothing in common with the Hearing language that surrounds it, but Deaf students learn to read and write Spanish as well; between that and some ISN speakers learning ASL anyway, they dont seem too disconnected from the broader Deaf community. They see a constant stream of academics swinging by to study the only known language to emerge spontaneously including Shepard-Kegl (she got married), now an established professor in her own right. ISNs situation is far from perfect. As with everywhere else, the school system has to struggle with budget cuts, and some parents hide their deaf kids where the school system cant reach them, leaving them unable to communicate outside basic concepts. As far as I can tell, it isnt under serious threat, but not everything is coming up roses.
And my analysis isnt perfect either. See, most English-language sources on ISN are either impenetrably academic, paywalled, or both: the bulk of the remainder focuses the journey, opinions, and discoveries of Shepard-Kegl, a Hearing woman. Even those that actually talk to ISN speakers usually do so through her or asking about her, leaving most of the content here filtered through her experiences. So you might get the impression this is the story of a white abled woman saving brown disabled children and bringing a wealth of knowledge back to the outside world, but thats really not the case. Its the story of a bunch of deaf kids becoming Deaf on their own terms, pulling off a feat in the process that would embarrass the inventors of Esperanto if they were still alive. And thats way more interesting than the dry treatise on Japanese Sign Language this disability corner started out as .