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David and Helen Constantine A Language without Words
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 Constantine
intelligible. By constraining then releasing her hands, she madeherself clear. Whenyouthinkof signing, youthinkof the hands. But watchNiki andDebbieinconversationandyouseethat the hands, though vital, are only a part of it. The face is wonderfullyexpressive; all thebodyis. Thiswasverywell put in a sentence signed by Niki and translated by Debbie: ‘Everythingis there in theperson.’ Thephrase‘bodylanguage’, hackneyedalmosttodeath, camealivebeforeoureyes. Andwe realized howdull to a deaf and signing person the body languageofthehearingandspeakingmustoftenbe, howlittle weuseof thebody’sexpressivepower. InDerbytheydistinguishfirmlybetweenthe‘deaf’ (those born deaf) and the ‘deafened’ (those made deaf by some occurrence or illness). The deafened, if they have hadsome years in which to read, will have accumulated a fund of associationsembeddedinthesoundofwordsbeingsaid; andit is this fundthat thetrulydeaf have noaccess to. It seems – that was our impression–verydifficult indeed, andperhaps impossible, foradeafpersontobegin, asanadult, togetaccess tothetraditionsofliteratureintheworld. Inthatcaseatleast, itseemsyoucannotrecoverwhatyouhaveneverhad. Andthat issurelyalossandanimpoverishment. Itishardforahearing personwhowrites andreads poetrytoimagine doingeither without asenseof tradition; andthat tradition, for centuries now, hasbeenwrittennotoral. Signing, since2003, hasbeen recognized as an official national language, but its poetic tradition, onlybeginning tobemade, is neither thespokennor thewrittenword, butpeformance, theextendingandrefining of expressivenessthroughtheface, thehands, thewholebody. ‘Everythingisthereintheperson.’ Ithastobewatched. Thepoemis composedinsign, without (if weunderstood correctly) there beinganypreliminaryverbal phase of which the signing would, so to speak, be a translation. Indeed, translationof awrittenpoemintosignis, ontheevidenceof our rough-and-ready experiments inDerby, a laborious and