New, Yet Familiar

It feels new and familiar all at once.

There’s no doubt that I’m a geek. I like to learn.  I especially enjoy learning about other people and cultures. Always the journalist, or maybe just the unqualified psychoanalyst, I want to know how people think.

While learning the signs is new, what feels familiar is American Sign Language’s emphasis on facial expression. In sign language, expressions aren’t stylistic. It’s proper grammar.

Both my parents are extroverts, so personal expression is hard fought for, because you have to be louder, sillier or more outrageous than they are. My mother, who practiced ASL more than anyone else in our house, is renowned in her goofiness.

So, here I thought, that when she used huge gestures when signing, it was a part of her personality shining through. Perhaps in part, but it’s also how the language is expressed.

Same with my brother, Marcus.

I’m quite certain that he’d tilt toward extrovert on the Myers-Briggs scale.

It hit me today when I asked our teacher, Steve, if there was a sign for “St. Louis.”

As he emphatically fingerspelled “S”, “T”, “L” I had a flashback to my brother doing the same.

The silence in our class is almost meditative, but at the same time, I have to hold a pretty intense concentration because ASL is a different language.

But the quiet provokes contemplation.

ASL is its own language with its own grammar, syntax and sentence structure. It is not English translated into sign.

In this assertion, there is also the component of deaf culture at play. Deaf, with a capital “D,” describes more than just the medical term for hearing loss. It is a badge of pride that eschews the hearing world’s norms and conventions, and declares there’s nothing disabling about being Deaf. Which means that ASL is its own distinct language, and not an inferior expression of English.

The familiarity crept back in. While I don’t know ASL, it permeated my brain throughout childhood.

Here’s the difference.

The most familiar structure, in English: “This Saturday is the first day of Summer.”

In ASL: “This Saturday 1st day summer.”

And here is where if Marcus had a voice, I’d hear it in my head. Instead, an image of his jagged penmanship on yellow legal paper floats into my mind. This is how I remember him.

And this is how he structured his thoughts when he had to communicate on paper.

I always excelled at reading and writing as a child. So I had no problem understanding what he was trying to say. But it never dawned on me that the grammatical structure he used was different from what I was reading in my books. It’s just how he communicated. I also tuned out much of the grammar in my house. My parents both spoke English as a second language, so compared to my peers raised by born-and-bred Missourians, grammar in our house was kind of a mess.

(See: Puerto Rican and “sangwhich.” But I digress.)

But ASL is so expressive, it doesn’t need a direct translation.

Take the word, “all.” It’s a shortie, and in ASL it’s even shorter. The fingerspelling for “a” followed by “l” swept across the chest. It’s simple, beautiful  and all-encompassing within a few seconds. You get it it.

I understand why verbatim translation of a language into sign doesn’t work. It’s clumsy and burdensome and is hard to express the intent of what’s being said. And isn’t that what language is all about? A means of expression of our thoughts and ideas?

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