A discussion with Margalit Fox about Talking Hands: What
Sign Language Reveals About the Mind
How did you come to write Talking Hands?
As a journalist with two degrees in linguistics, I enjoy combining my two
fields whenever possible and writing about language for the general reader. For
years, I've dreamed of writing a popular book about language that would be
universally accessible yet contain the scientific insightsand the narrative
eleganceof a book by Oliver Sacks or John McPhee. But for years, no compelling
enough topic presented itself.
In the summer of 2001, I was having lunch with Mark Aronoff, an
internationally renowned linguist and my former academic adviser. I was telling
him about my desire to write such a book, and bemoaning the lack of a suitable
topic. Let's face it: I was whining.
"Come with us," Mark said.
That was when he told me about the research project that is the centerpiece
of Talking Hands. With three colleagues, Mark had been working secretly in Al-Sayyid,
a remote Bedouin village where, as the result of an abnormally high incidence of
hereditary deafness, an indigenous sign language had sprung up, "spoken" by deaf
and hearing people alike. It was a language few outsiders had ever seen. By
decoding this mysterious language, Mark and his colleagues hoped to isolate the
most basic ingredients from which all human languages, signed and spoken, are
But tagging along with the scientists turned out to be no simple matter.
After nearly a year of trans-Atlantic negotiations with the research team's
leader, Professor Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa (I literally flew to
Europe, where she was then working, for a single day, just to take her to lunch
and plead my case), I was finally granted permission to accompany the team on a
visit to the signing village in the summer of 2003. The story of that trip a
journey to a village where everyone speaks sign language is the narrative
heart of Talking Hands.
What are sign languages, anyway? Did someone sit down and invent them?
The sign languages that Deaf people speak every day are real, natural
languages, as grammatical complex and fully human as any spoken language. No one
sat down and invented them. Instead, they arose spontaneously in places where
Deaf people had the opportunity to congregate, and have evolved historically
over time, just as spoken languages do. (Sign languages even have regional and
Is there one universal sign language, used by Deaf people around the world?
No. Nearly every country has its own national sign language, each one
different from the next. Today, there are scores of sign languages in use around
the globe, possibly hundreds, from American Sign Language to British Sign
Language, Irish Sign Language, German Sign Language, Danish Sign Language,
Swedish Sign Language, Turkish Sign Language, Israeli Sign Language, Saudi
Arabian Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language, Hong Kong Sign Language, Japanese
Sign Language, Mozambiquan Sign Language, Zimbabwean Sign Language, and more.
Is American Sign Language simply a manual version of English?
No. ASL, the language of a quarter- to a half-million North Americans, is an
autonomous language that evolved independently of English, with its own
grammatical structure. (Linguists have compared aspects of ASL grammar to
Japanese and Navajo.) Strikingly, ASL and British Sign Language, though both
used in English-speaking countries, are mutually unintelligible. A Deaf American
will actually have an easier time understanding a Deaf Frenchman: ASL is
historically descended from French Sign Language.
Why do signers seem to grimace while they're signing?
Those facial expressions are actually a crucial part of sign-language
grammar. In the sign languages of the world, the face, head and eyes play a
vital role, conveying extra grammatical informationturning a declarative
sentence into a question, for examplewhile the signer's hands are "busy
Which side of the brain controls sign language the right, where our visual
and spatial faculties lie, or the left, where spoken-language ability resides?
That was the fundamental question confronting the first sign-language
researchers in the 1970's and 80's. It was an open question whether sign
language was controlled by the right half of the brain or the left, and
persuasive arguments could be made on both sides. Then, one brilliant scientist
was inspired to study Deaf signers who had suffered strokes. The findings were
astonishing and they answered the question once and for all. I explore these
studies of the signing brain in detail in Chapter 16 of Talking Hands.
What was it like going to the village of Al-Sayyid? Exactly where is it,
Al-Sayyid (pronounced es-SAYY-id) is hot, dusty and like nowhere else on
earth. You reach it from a series of ever-narrower, unmarked dirt roads, miles
from the nearest town. There are olive groves, and grazing sheep and goats, all
around. A typical village home might consist of two simple rooms in a
whitewashed, tin-roofed building. The head of the household might have three
wives (the community is polygamous) and twenty children, six of whom are deaf.
Inside, you sit on the floor on hand-loomed rugs, drinking sweet tea and eating
a meal of fragrant kebabs and homemade pita bread, and watch, amazed, as a dozen
lively conversationsall in sign language, used by deaf and hearing members of
the family alikeerupt in the air around you. Then you look up to see a camel
shambling by the front door. Definitely a not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling!
As for the location of the village, all I can say is this: Al-Sayyid is
somewhere in Israel. The four scientists working there are, understandably,
quite adamant that the villagers' privacy be protected. As a result, I have
disguised the precise location of Al-Sayyid in my book. Consider the village a
kind of signing Brigadoon, impossible for any outsider to find. But Al-Sayyid is
very real, and Talking Hands will take you there.
Why is the language of a "signing village" like Al-Sayyid so crucially
important to science?
A brand-new, indigenous sign language like that of Al-Sayyid, offers
scientists an unprecedented opportunity to see the human "language instinct" in
actionto watch what happens when the mind has to make a language from scratch.
As Wendy Sandler, one of the four scientists profiled in Talking Hands says:
"A linguist never has the opportunity to see how language is born. All spoken
languages are either thousands of years old or came about as a result of contact
between languages that are thousands of years old. So in spoken language there
is no such thingthere can be no such thingas a new language born of nothing.
Only in a sign-language situation can that happen. If you get a deaf community,
then a language will be born, and there are no other languages in the
environment that are accessible."
Are there other "signing villages"?
Yes about a dozen at last count, all in remote corners of the world.
Scientific work in these villages is just barely beginning. At the end of
Talking Hands, I take readers to an international meeting of researchers
who are studying these "signing villages," the first time in history that all of
them had convened in one place. And, as scientists are now learning, there may
be even more of these "signing villages" out there than anyone ever realized,
waiting to be discovered.
Why is the study of sign language in general such a hot topic in cognitive
For decades, everything that scientists knew about the structure of human
language (and, by extension, everything they knew about how language works in
the human mind), came from the study of spoken language. Sign languages, to the
extent that anyone thought about them at all, weren't considered languages: ASL
was only discovered to be a "real" language in 1960! And only in the 70's did
scientists fully realize that this language in another modalitya language
transmitted by hand and received by eyeheld deep, surprising clues to the kinds
of mental systems that all human languages belong to.
Today, the study of signed languages is revealing dramatic new evidence of
how all language, signed and spoken, is processed, stored and remembered in the
What did the mysterious sign language of Al-Sayyid turn out to reveal about
the structure of human language?
That is the $64,000 question. For the answer, you'll have to read the book!