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Without A Word

February 16, 2017

How would you communicate without words? I realize your first reaction might be, “Why in the dickens would I do that?” (‘Dickens’ added for effect, of course.) Yet, for the nearly half a million people who rely on their hands, gesturing and facial expressions to speak, signing or finger spelling is their manual voice.

Therefore, since many things pique my interest, when I met a gentleman recently accompanied by his deaf friend he spoke to me verbally while signing so his friend could visually ‘hear’ what we were talking about. Hence, I decided to research the art of signing. Sign language is not the same as body language, or giving someone ‘a look’ obviously. Signing is a manual form of communication that has been used for centuries. Although, he mistakenly explained the art of signing is universal. True, manual communication to convey a message is, however, a widely-held misconception is that a person who signs could travel abroad and be understood. False.

For instance, say I traveled to France. I would encounter a language barrier when signing. Technically, I would encounter a barrier anywhere since I don’t sign. Unless you count being asked if I’m Italian because I tend to talk with my hands. But what’s even more amazing than me flinging my arms around to make a point is…drum roll please…I discovered within the boundaries of this country there are different accents on signing. Imagine signing with a southern drawl. It does happen.

Should have seen that coming since I’ve lived in seven different states and can attest to the fact that y’all talk quirky around these here parts. The most interesting pronunciation, I’ve heard, pertains to words that end in ‘d’ but folks feel the need ‘do their thang’ and twang the end with a ‘t’ when spoken. Beats the bejeebers out of me as to WHY? When I hear words like: fount, holt, learnt, and spoilt. (I’m sure there’s more.)

In contrast, I noticed while living up north folks sure as shooting shy away from the ‘r’ sound. Yepperrrrs, when I first moved to Massachusetts I was repeatedly asked to say, “Park the car in the harbor yard.” Easy peasy lemon squeezy, however, tables turned, they say, “Pak the ca, in the haba yad.” I know right. Dickens, I made a bee line for parts south before I learnt to talk that way, or fount out it was contagious. (And that my friends is the only time you’ll ‘hear’ me use a ‘t’ instead of a ‘d’. Guaruuunteeed!)

Although, in the deep south, where I’m originally from it’s an entirely different dialect. The inflection that plagued me until I swerved left and ended up north of the Mason Dixon was the high ‘I’ sound. I’d say, ‘ice,’ ‘sprite,’ ‘hi,’ anything with an ‘I’ like it was the most important letter in the word. Possibly the entire alphabet. Had to cure myself out of necessity though because I was incessantly misunderstood. Picture this: in a drive through ordering a burger and sprite. Durn diddlies, I got fries every time! Purely out of self-preservation I dropped the heavy accent on ‘I’. (Ironic now since I don’t eat burgers anymore and eat fries.)

Therefore, being slightly well traveled across the US I’ve basically heard everything so I wasn’t totally surprised to learn sign language has unique accentuations in various parts of this country. Not only does signing encompass the entire upper torso, facial expression is a large part of this manual communication. Thus, it’s perfectly realistic to assume sign language was created by speaking people to communicate with the mute or deaf. False, again. Sign language grew out of the need for those who can’t converse verbally to ‘speak’ to each other visually. In fact, Hawaiian dance is as symbolic of telling a story as hand gestures and facial expressions in sign language are used to deliver a message.

Except for carrying a ‘finger alphabet’ card I happen to know more gestures in baby sign language. Extremely beneficial for new parents and children, by the way. A child who is taught simple iconic gestures can tell a parent they are hungry, or thirsty, by signing for more drink or food. And a plethora of other manual communications long before they articulate words.

In conclusion, I’ve seen entertainers sign “I love you” to audiences everywhere using the ‘I’, ‘L’ and ‘Y’ of the phrase finger spelled on one hand. And, if you hold your hand with those fingers extended up to your ear it means, “Call me.”

“Can you imagine…” if signers drop ‘R’s in the north, or replace ‘D’s with ‘T’s in the south?

Smile, it’s universal.



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