RE: Do we really live in language?
Tue, 14 May 1996 16:43:08 EST

Alessandra Iantaffi writes:

>If we keep talking
>about spoken, verbal language as we are doing, what about those people
>whose language is not verbal or who do have a language impairment? Do
>they live 'less' than others? Are their interactions less meaningful? I
>am thinking of Deaf people using sign language, and, in a different way,
>of people with aphasia, and also of children who do not yet master the
>language properly. Just another point about Deaf people and sign
>language before I log off... The belief that we live in spoken, verbal
>language has led to Deaf culture and Sign Language to be heavily
>oppressed in the last 116 yrs (from 1880, Milan congress), so beliefs of
>this type, might seem harmless and of the taken-for-granted type, but may
>affect people's lives.

It seems to me that sign language is a legitimate language -- it is
composed of a system of signs (more or less arbitrary symbols used to
refer to socially shared meanings) and allows for the exchange of meaning
with the efficiency that is virtually identical with spoken language. The
case of Hellen Keller, of course, comes to mind. Her psychological
development -- her capacity to relate to others, develop cognitively and
emotionally, etc.. -- only began to take off when she begain to gain
an understanding of sign use, that there could be a sign that refers to
water. In this way, one might suggest that one's development, and thus
one's psychological life, would be significantly retarded if one were
prohibited from developing or using sign activity.

Having said this, language (speech -- whether verbal or through sign
language) is but one of the tools that we use to think with, communicate,
or live in. There are other types of signs systems that we can live in
(for example musical notation -- do you remember Salieri's experience of
music upon reading Mozart's music in _Amadeus_), imagery, etc. I think
that the point about language is that once language facility emerges
in development, it transforms thinking and action. Although language
is important, it is not autonomous. It is best to say that language
interacts with other modes of activity (e.g. thought, feeling, action,
etc.) I can have a thought that I cannot put into words; once I use a
word to express that thought, the thought may become transformed, and

Mike Mascolo