Before 3D-Print There Was 3D-Language

Before 3D-Print There Was 3D-Language

In this blog series I will introduce you to the deaf world. A community and culture unknown to me until three years ago, but as this world unfolds it captivates me more and more.

3D-printed paintings and sculptures are emerging in museums, in particular to make art accessible to people who are blind or partially sighted. The challenge of museums today is to serve and be responsive to a diverse public. However, the debate on inclusiveness in museums is fragmented. It is a debate either on providing physical access to people with impairment or on cultural diversity: the assimilation of different cultural perspectives from ‘the Other’. The two debates relate to deaf museum visitors, however this group is overlooked in both. My Ph.D. research examines from a Deaf Studies perspective how museums exclude groups of people and aims to consolidate the two debates into a new comprehensive theoretical framework on inclusive museums. In this blog series I will introduce you to the deaf world. A community and culture unknown to me until three years ago, but as this world unfolds it captivates me more and more.

© That Deaf Guy, Facebook

For deaf people, light is a deeply rooted value. Light signifies the ability to communicate in sign language and its absence means that there is no opportunity to sign, as we see in the cartoon.[1] Just as light, a window represents communication. A deaf friend once told me: “It’s great, through the train window I can continue talking with my boyfriend when he’s on the platform”. The symbolic meaning of light and windows to deaf people illustrates the primary difference between the deaf world and the hearing world: deaf people communicate in visual-gestural (sign) languages and hearing people in oral languages. It comes natural to deaf people to communicate in sign language (signing) and to have a highly visual perception of the world, or to have deaf eyes.[2]

Communication in sign language is a core part of Deaf culture[3] and essential to deaf children’s social and intellectual development. Most profoundly deaf people are proud to sign and regard deafness as identity, however this has not always been the case. In all times and places deaf people gathered in communities, shared perspectives, and signed. But it is not until the 1960s that deaf people realized they shared a complete language, and constituted a community and culture of their own. This has to do with the history, contextualization, and structure of sign languages. This blog provides a crash course into sign language and its use, or prohibition to use.

One of the first recorded observations of using signs and gestures is already found in Plato’s Cratylus (400-350 BCE) where Socrates referred to deaf people in Athens:

“If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?”[4]

According to H-Dirksen L. Bauman, the reference to signs in Cratylus is used to discuss the nature of speech. Socrates and Hermogenes wonder whether names are natural to things and how links were formed between arbitrary sounds and things. Signs are involved in this linking because of their primary relation to the world, they believed. ‘Primary relation’ refers to the iconicity of sign languages: iconic signs reveal something fundamental about the things they indicate in contrast to arbitrary signs.[5] A comparative perspective on signs was a central subject of research in the French Enlightenment when philosophers studied the gestural origin of language. However, the idea of a complete language constituted of signs was not born yet.

In the mid 18th Century, Charles-Michel de l’Epée learned the signs deaf people used (something that was rarely done before by a hearing person) and taught deaf children to read French by linking signs to pictures and words. For the first time deaf children were able to acquire education. In 1755, de l’Epée founded the first public school for the deaf in France; he established twenty other schools in France and Europe in his life. At the beginning of the 19th Century the deaf liberation and education had reached the United States.[6]

Around 1870 the tide turned. Partly because of a general intolerance of minorities and their practices (languages) at that time, and a growing concern of teachers and parents of that interaction in sign might restrict their deaf children. The idea arose that speech and lip-reading should be taught to allow for full integration of deaf people in the hearing world.[7]

In 1880, at the International Congress on Education for the Deaf (ICED) in Milan, the use of sign language at home and school was discouraged. From the 1920s, deaf children were taught in schools by speaking, lip-reading, and hearing. Signing was banned and even punishments for signing were common. Although deaf people continued to sign, many felt ashamed of their own language and disvalued it. This period is now referred to as the time of linguistic and cultural colonization.[8] It is only since the 1960s in the US, and the 1980s in the Netherlands, that the linguistic nature of sign languages has been recognized: sign languages have a vocabulary and grammar of their own. In the Netherlands, bi-lingual education was not standardized at schools for the deaf until the end of the 1990s.After the US recognition of sign language in the 1960s, and sparked by civil right activists, deaf people started to consider themselves as belonging to the plurality of human cultures. In the next decade, Deaf studies arose to strive for emancipation of the Deaf community by spreading knowledge of sign language, history of deaf people, and Deaf culture to both deaf and hearing people. Nowadays, the Deaf community is acknowledged as a cultural-linguistic minority and Deaf studies shifted its focus from emancipation to the life and culture of deaf people, like art. The next blog of this series will be on sign poetry: poems written in sign language. As an introduction to this blog I will elaborate briefly on the structure and use of sign languages.

Sign languages are visual-gestural languages in a three-dimensional space. Central are the use of the eyes, face, and gestures. Just as oral languages exist of phonemes, words, and sentences, sign languages exist of basic elements. Every gesture exists of four manual elements: the place of the gesture, the shape of the hand, the hand orientation, and the movement. A gesture is completed with the non-manual part: mimic, body position and head movements, oral components, or articulated components.

For example, the gesture for cultuur (culture) in Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN) is made by:

Manual part

The right (or left) hand placed next to the head, just above the ear.
The hand shaped like a letter ‘C’.
The fingers and palm of the hand are directed towards the face.
The hand moves in a semicircle.

Non-manual part

The mouth articulates the Dutch word cultuur.

© Nederlands Gebarencentrum

As a surprise to many, sign language is not universal. Like Dutch, UK English and US English, there are Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN), British Sign Language (BSL), and American Sign Language (ASL). To communicate across borders, there is not an established international sign language but an alternative system of communication, namely international sign. When deaf people with different mother tongues communicate the ‘international sign’ arises at that moment: they will use elements from the different sign languages known and rely more strongly on iconic gestures and structures.[9]

The adaptability and creativity of signers to communicate a message is significant to the writing and understanding of sign poetry. Writing a poem in 3D-language with a finishing touch in 2D? More on that in my next blog.

© That Deaf Guy, Facebook

[1] Benjamin Bahan, “Upon the Formation of a Visual Variety of the Human Race” in Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, ed. H-Dirksen L. Bauman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 90.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Some authors use Deaf people with a capital ‘D’ when referring to people that participate in the Deaf community and deaf people without a capital ‘D’ to denote all people that cannot hear. However, such distinction would be to complex for this blog and does not do justice to the variety of deaf people that its content concerns. However, I chose to capitalize the words Deaf community and Deaf culture for the reason that their existence is acknowledged as a cultural minority.

[4] Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices (London: Pan Macmillan, 1989), 14.

[5] H-Dirksen L. Buaman, “On the Disconstruction of (Sign) Language in the Western Tradition: A Deaf reading of Plato’s Cratylus,” in Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, ed. H-Dirksen L. Bauman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 133-5.

[6] Sacks 1989, 15-19, 22.

[7] Ibid., 22-23.

[8] Paddy Ladd, “Colonialism and Resistance: A Brief History of Deafhood,” in Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, ed. H-Dirksen L. Bauman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 42.

[9] Anja Hiddinga and Onno Crasborn. “Signed Languages and Globalization,” in Language in Society 40:4 (2011), 485.

© Nynke Feenstra and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nynke Feenstra and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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