Review of TALKING HANDS by MARGALIT FOX
In an isolated village in Israel, there’s an unusual percentage of deafness. Given the seclusion, an indigenous sign language has developed. TALKING HANDS follows the linguist who set out to study this unique language.
Although the book focuses on a specific sign language, this is as much a book about linguistics in general as sign language or the village’s particular language. The chapters alternate between focusing on the village versus focusing on the history of sign language linguistic research. I found the discussion of the Forbidden Experiment particularly interesting as I’m intrigued by science’s struggle to obtain new knowledge with as few ethical violations and moral sacrifices as possible.
As one might expect, the content also lends itself to a social history of deafness and sign language. Again my own interest in emotionally complex matters made me most drawn to a particular topic: that of internalized prejudice, such as when deaf people side with the hearing about limiting deaf rights.
The more scientific content is no less fascinating. Fox discusses how studying individuals who have sustained damage to the left side of their brain helps us understand the neurobiology of language. I also appreciated her mention of how the deaf both sign in their sleep and sign to themselves when they’re alone. (I didn’t specifically think one wouldn’t; as a hearing person, those are simply aspects of deafness that I had never considered.)
I will confess that the introduction put me off at first. I didn’t like that “speak” is in quotations when referring to sign language. There are multiple official definitions of speak, but most refer to using any language, not specifically oral language, so it’s society’s hearing bias when people think using sign language isn’t technically speaking. I’ve also encountered several deaf people venting about this phenomenon that hearing writers feel they must use “signed” instead of “said” (or “replied” or “asked,” etc.). There’s a subtext with that attitude that sign language isn’t a real language. Of course, I know we often say (or write) things that don’t across as we mean them and this writer’s overt passion for sign language counterbalances a perhaps misguided use of quotation marks.
TALKING HANDS is a thoroughly engaging book packed with interesting content about the linguistic and social history of sign language through the lens of a specific, very unique village.