American Sign Language, Mimicry, and Animist Speech

For a month or two I’ve studied ASL, taught by my Deaf friend RaVen. I’ve wanted to write something on the boundless joy and refreshing vitality that sign has imparted to me, in the moments that I immerse in it. However, I know the vitality, immediacy, and honesty of sign connects to some other fundamental animist languaging issues.

My friend Evan Gardner, a “language savior”, once told me that rather than fixing English (in the philosophy of E-prime and E-primitive), American Sign Language itself seemed to satisfy everything I looked for in a renewed and animist way of communicating. At the time, I didn’t really believe him. Now, I still write in E-prime of course, and still see possibilities with E-primitive (inevitable ones, in fact), but I also now think I understand Evan’s point.

From Word Play, by Peter Farb (also author of Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America, an excellent book)

The Plains Sign Language lacked true nouns, verbs, or adjectives in the way that speakers of  English know them, yet it contained elements which could function like those parts of speech.

Also, regarding the Uburu of the Amazon, a tribe with a small hereditary deaf population:

Whatever the explanation, one must admire a society in which everyone learns a complete system of gestural communication simply to accommodate the handicap of a small minority. An equivalent case would be if everyone in the United States learned to read and write Braille for the benefit of the small percentage of the American population that is blind. And the sign language that the Urubu have developed is not merely dumb show; it represents a complete linguistic system which can fully communicate the utterances of the spoken language. I have sat with four or five Urubu men and listened to one of them tell a story. But as soon as we were joined by a deaf person, the speaker immediately switched to the sign language, apparently without omitting a thought.

For me, this doesn’t point to the ingenuity of the Plains Indians for drumming up an intercultural sign language, nor does it point to the generosity of the Urubu for nicely including deaf people in their conversations. Certainly ingenuity and compassion play a role in these situations, but animist expression plays the biggest part.

Humans, by my guess, became storytellers and trackers (and thus human) the same way the rest of the highly communicative species did: through imitation and mimicry. Mynah birds, Lyre birds, parrots, corvids (jays, crows, magpies, ravens), cuttlefish, octopi, mostly highly social and communicative animals, and certainly all excellent imitators, share a common kind of intelligence. I don’t know if we have an English word for what I mean by “kind of intelligence”, but I certainly don’t simply mean “smart”. Humans look at the world in a specific way, with a specific kind of trickster curiosity. Many of these animals share this odd perspective, or “spirit bundle”.

I believe all animist speech carries an intrinsic honesty, because it has imitative, rather than definitive, goals. It doesn’t try to label, it tries to pass on the sensory pattern: color, movement, sound, smell, texture. Thus you have birds named by their verbalized call (much like “Pumpkin-eeeeeeater”, aka Redwing Blackbird). David Abram speaks about this at length in the Spell of the Sensuous.

Sign language, most likely for practical reasons (but I won’t speculate), and more specifically American Sign Language, closely toes this imitative linguistic line.

In fact my friend RaVen once told me of her shock upon reading a faithful translation of Hopi language, because it sounded/felt/communicated just like American Sign Language.

So animists don’t have to make much of a leap from spoken animist language to signed animist language. But for decades, the grammer and subtle conceptualizations of ASL has eluded most modern language-speaking academics who have neglected until recently to even count it as a “real” language.

I highly recommend you learn ASL to further explore animist language; and if you can learn from a true Deaf speaker of ASL, so much the better. I believe you will learn something that comes as close as we can get to our own, honest, animist language. But behave respectfully: like with all languages, it belongs to a certain people, the people of the Deaf subculture. They steward and renew the language themselves, and teach it to us out of compassion and a wish to communicate.

Written by Willem