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Imagine A Village Where Everyone Speaks Sign Language Just Such A Village An Isolated Bedouin Community In Israel With An Unusually High Rate Of Deafness Is At The Heart Of Talking Hands What Sign Language Reveals About The Mind There, An Indigenous Sign Language Has Sprung Up, Used By Deaf And Hearing Villagers Alike It Is A Language No Outsider Has Been Able To Decode, Until NowA New York Times Reporter Trained As A Linguist, Margalit Fox Is The Only Western Journalist To Have Set Foot In This Remarkable Village In Talking Hands, She Follows An International Team Of Scientists That Is Unraveling This Mysterious LanguageBecause The Sign Language Of The Village Has Arisen Completely On Its Own, Outside The Influence Of Any Other Language, It Is A Living Demonstration Of The Language Instinct, Man S Inborn Capacity To Create Language If The Researchers Can Decode This Language, They Will Have Helped Isolate Ingredients Essential To All Human Language, Signed And Spoken But As Talking Hands Grippingly Shows, Their Work In The Village Is Also A Race Against Time, Because The Unique Language Of The Village May Already Be Endangered Talking Hands Offers A Fascinating Introduction To The Signed Languages Of The World Languages As Beautiful, Vital And Emphatically Human As Any Other Explaining Why They Are Now Furnishing Cognitive Scientists With Long Sought Keys To Understanding How Language Works In The MindWritten In Lyrical, Accessible Prose, Talking Hands Will Captivate Anyone Interested In Language, The Human Mind And Journeys To Exotic Places


10 thoughts on “Talking Hands

  1. says:

    Talking Hands is in part the story of the development of sign languages around the world, and in part an exploration of the development of language and how that might have occurred in human history The little Bedouin settlement which is the main case study is a place where a sign language has arisen independently of other sign languages, and its development has mirrored that of the development of spoken languages in ways which may reveal important things about the way the human brain handles language.Most of the neurological stuff wasn t new to me, and it s definitely on a level any reader can appreciate it doesn t go into massively technical terms, or dissect vast case studies about the way injuries affect the brain, etc The historical context of sign language and how people treated deaf and dumb people in the past was newer for me I wasn t aware, for example, that for ages people even deaf people considered sign language inferior because it lacked the sort of grammar people recognised It was even suppressed in favour of cumbersome sign language which followed word for word the pattern of spoken language, ignoring the potential for a spatial grammar.Margalit Fox comes across as a science writer rather than a scientist, making the book very accessible either on its own, or as a complement to in depth works about language like Steven Pinker s I didn t find it as fascinating as her book on decrypting Linear B, but her writing is clear and concisely informative, and I enjoyed reading the book I wasn t always sure about the way she characterised actual people I wouldn t find some of those descriptions very flattering respectful but she did write it with the approval and help of the team working in the Bedouin village, according to her introduction, and it s never disrespectful about disability or intelligence.Originally posted here.


  2. says:

    Behind the bleak, brown cover of Talking Hands is a book brimming with color and information Similarly, a relatively new language a signed language that is unlike any other has been blossoming for the last seventy years amidst the sand in al Sayyid, a Bedouin village in the Negev desert of southern Israel In this village of approximately 3,500 a genetic form of deafness has been thriving as a result of frequent intermarriage Today, about 150 villagers are deaf, but these people do not live isolated, marginalized lives, a common fate for deaf people throughout history Rather they are fully functioning members of their society and they owe much of this freedom to al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language ASBL , a language that sprang up about seventy years ago when ten deaf villagers were brought together and consequently formed a simple contact pidgin This language was presumably very simple, virtually without grammar, an amalgam of gestures and signs, mostly nouns, thrown haphazardly together though we will never be certain all ten first generation signers are dead The second generation, however, were the real magic makers, morphing their parent s grammarless gestures, somehow, into a simple, yet fully functioning language Today, the members of this second generation are in their thirties and forties, raising the third generation of signers, who range from infancy to young adulthood Not only the deaf children but also a large percentage of their hearing brothers and sisters, learn ABSL as a first language So, unwittingly, these villagers have create a world that many deaf people have pined for, where deaf people are on the same level as hearing people and no one is singled out because of their deafness.This village, as it turns out, offers a fascinating, even tantalizing opportunity for linguistics At least as long ago as Noam Chomsky many linguists have been lusting after something, a thought experiment so taboo that it has come to be known as the Forbidden Experiment essentially, put a bunch of kids together, with no linguistic input save for perhaps a few basic words and see what they make This could help answer many important questions, chief among them, How are languages formed , What are newborn languages alike , and Just how fundamentally similar are languages Al Sayyid has offered a natural opportunity to answer those questions without the risk of forming a roving pack of feral children.This book is the product of Margalit Fox, a New York Times reporter who, in 2004, decided to shadow a group of four linguists as they went on a research trip to al Sayyid The linguists tools were basic just a laptop computer that showed a series of pictures and some video, designed to elicit basic vocabulary and syntax respectively but the data they collect will surely keep them busy for the rest of their careers After the first chapter, In the Village of the Deaf, Fox spends the next chapter discussing sign language in general In the following chapters she follows the same pattern, alternating between discussing ASBL in particular and signed language in general.ABSL is of great interest to many academic disciplines and Fox at least touches on all anthropology, psychology, genetics, physiology, and of course the many aspects of linguistics In her attempt at revealing ABSL Fox discusses the results of so many scientific studies, drops so many interesting tidbits she can t help but make her readers all a bit brighter And I couldn t help but write a blog post about some of them Already I see this review as rather wordy, didactic than critical it is all Mrs Fox s doing.Really, this is a great book for anyone you need not know anything about sign language or even language in general It is a colorful, fact filled book that never made me want to skim With this in mind, and with the relative popularity of language books in the present day, I can only wonder why this book has not found of an audience.


  3. says:

    Among the most thorough overviews of ASL and signed languages in general The book blurb focuses on the Deaf colony in Bedouin, but Fox focuses the majority of the book on historical and linguistic backgrounds of Sign Since most of the research nowadays focus on ASL, the book is fairly ASL centric which was fine by me since I was interested in ASL specifically, but might turn off some readers Nevertheless, Fox does a stupendous job of combing the very complicated history of signed langauges, particularly ASL, which is full of pedagogical biases of differen times in history, and seamelssly incorporating linguistic theory Her prose manages to be accessible, yet detailed and accurate That s not an easy feat when you have to combine Noam Chomsky, obscure linguistic research, and oralism Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in signed langauges in general or ASL specifically.


  4. says:

    Ughhh oh my word, this is such a boring book This just needs to be made into a documentary if it hasn t been already and let that be good enough Dry, dry, dry This book is a minute by agonizing minute account of a trip to a remote village where lots of deaf people reside and have their own sign language Also lots of textbook style discussion of linguistics Giving 2 stars for the concept alone and for some interesting parts about language development studies.


  5. says:

    This is a fantastically accessible book for anyone interested in the history of American Sign Language, signed languages, and to a lesser extent, languages in general.Personally, I was primarily interested in the history of ASL and it s struggle to be accepted as a real language So I was pleased that the author did an excellent job of balancing the history of ASL with the relatively recent discovery of an isolated signed language in a remote Bedouin village Additionally, she was able to use the ASL history sections to demonstrate why the linguists were so excited to observe and document the spontaneously created Bedouin sign language This also underscored nicely the implications that, that nascent language holds for the understanding of human language acquisition in general.The only quibbles I had about the book were mostly minor The author choose to bypass the whole Deaf vs deaf distinction decided to use deaf throughout She reasoned that since the Bedouin community is largely a signing village regardless of audiological status they really don t have a distinct Deaf culture true enough However, that s not accurate in the US where there is a really is a Deaf culture Nonetheless she continued to use deaf throughout Second, as a hearing ASL user I ve read many glosses of ASL English But the style used in the book was a little strange that lead to re reading those spots 3 4 times Like I said, minor quibbles.


  6. says:

    This book has interesting data and a lovely human story, so much to recommend, but if I wasn t a current student of ASL, it would never have been finished The author has a slow way of making her point with not quite enough examples and a pace that crawls Every once in a while, she entertains brilliantly, as in this early quote Speaking about linguists in the early part of the development of their science, she describes them Looking back, one can almost imagine them stalking through the wild with specimen bottles and outsize nets, in determined pursuit of the Ojibwa adverb or the Cherokee pronoun In it s favour and maybe this part of the review should have been first I must say that this book became an essential part of my ASL education A year and a half in with one year left, my teacher has been slowly introducing us to the properties of ASL that make it it s own language, separate and unique, from English But as a hearing person, it is difficult to turn my understanding of language upside down And honestly, I thought she was just being picky Until this book, I was trying to copy and emulate each lesson, but it wasn t sinking in Now the word order, the verb agreement, the extra pronouns, facial expressions, Wh words at the end of the sentence, the fact that I should throw English and my voice out as I walk in the door make sense to my hearing addled brain My teacher and deaf co workers have both commented on the recent improvement in my signing Thanks so much, Marg


  7. says:

    Excellent book Even with my minimal ASL and layman s interest in linguistics I just could not put this book down I enjoyed every page It is both history and ethnographic studies and linguists A fascinating look at how we communicate and what it means to have the ability to communicate, whether that is with our voice, our hands or some other medium As humans we need to, we have to, we want to and we like to communicate with one and other A wonderful book Margalit Fox does a wonderful job in conveying the depth, history and sometimes controversial aspects of oral language vs signed language.


  8. says:

    I was led to this book after having read Fox s book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth Talking Hands, while apparently written to a general audience why else devote so much text to the history of ASL and linguistic terminology , is best appreciated by those with than a nodding acquaintance with linguistics and or a strong interest in sign language I found it quite interesting for the most part, but eventually it became much than I wanted to know as a someone merely curious.


  9. says:

    A fascinating book, for linguists and non linguists alike Alternating chapters on the development of linguistic theory and interviews with the Al Sayyid keep this book from being too dry Well written and concise enough that anyone can enjoy it, but full of tidbits that appeal to a invested linguistic crowd too.


  10. says:

    The only serious complaint I have towards this book is the way that the author so highly talks about dodgy and disreputable linguist Noam Chomsky, to the point of calling the contemporary era of linguistics the Chomsky era Aside from this notable misstep, the author does a great job of discussing a particularly mysterious community with a high deaf population, and manages to weave this story into a larger story about how it is that people create languages in the first place, which proves to be a very deeply interesting question well worth discussing and something that I must admit is an interest of mine As this is the second book by the author that I have read, it has become rather notable that the author has such a strong interest in issues of communication and in the languages that people use to communicate with others As communication happens to be a great interest of mine, this book provided a great deal of insight into how it is that communication is hard wired into the brain and manifested in different ways based on the particular environment, and also the way that indigenous sign languages show a consistent set of principles that allow them to be well understood that appear to take advantage of space and motion rather than the verbal elements that make up other languages.This book of almost 300 pages is made up of seventeen chapters and other materials that combine to tell a compelling story about a remote village and deaf culture and the formation of languages, all of which are quite interesting subjects The first few essays look at the author s trip to a remote Bedouin village in Israel where a large percentage of the population at least 4% or so are deaf and where everyone speaks sign language The author weaves in the story of linguists attempting to decipher this language and gain insights into the language building capacity of people while simultaneously preserving its state as much as possible in the face of the influence of Israeli Sign Language, which many of the younger generation is learning with other interesting stories as well For example, some of the book s material deals with the origins of ASL and the tug of war between those who advocate speaking with the hands and those who want deaf language to be an imitation of spoken English, which is much harder for the deaf to learn, apparently Also, the author uses the discussion of the spontaneous generation of local sign languages around the world as an entrance into discussing the neural program that apparently exists within the mind that allows languages to be created from pidgins into creoles whether spoken verbally or through one s hands.And I must admit that I find the author s approach to be compelling and the subject matter to be deeply interesting While I am not personally familiar with deaf culture or politics on a personal level, I do come from a family where I and others have been hard of hearing in some aspects I have high frequency hearing loss in my left ear at present, and other members of my family have suffered from even serious hearing loss I also have a deaf friend with whom I occasionally communicate via translation from those who are better at ASL than I am Beyond that, though, my own deep personal interests in language and communication are well served by a book that demonstrates how it is that human beings are almost compelled to reach out across the void that separates them from others and strives to build some aspect of communication with those around us, be it by gestures that become formalized into a language or whether it is through the creation of creole languages Likewise, the book contains some poignant discussions of brain damage and its effects on sign language users, a rather sad aspect There is a great deal of interest here if one has an interest in language and communication as well as the deaf.