Excerpt from Talking Hands by Margalit Fox, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Talking Hands

What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind

By Margalit Fox

Talking Hands
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2007,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2008,
    368 pages.

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Chapter 1

The house is a lighted island in a sea of gathering dark. The sun has just gone down, and the desert breeze blowing in through the large open windows is cooler now. Outside, just beyond the house, fields of yellow stubble give way to a flat expanse of sand and scrub that stretches toward the distant hills ringing the horizon. A band of vermilion hangs above the hills, and above that, the sky is an inverted bowl of deep turquoise. Across the sand, a line of shadowy forms can be seen picking its way slowly toward the house: the village camels, home for the night.

From a nearby mosque, the muezzin's call to prayer floats through the open windows. The windows have deep marble sills but no glass, for the house is barely half-finished. Right now it is little more than walls, sheer slabs of whitewashed concrete that seem to rise organically from the surface of the desert. There is no front door yet, and no front steps: you enter, perilously, by clawing your way up a steep concrete ramp coated with blown sand. Inside, the house is hollow. Its half-dozen rooms have neither doors nor windows, and underfoot, where the floor will be, is only hard-packed dirt. Garlands of electrical wires sprout from the bare white walls; a black rubber hose of indeterminate purpose snakes across the ground from room to room. That is all there is to the house so far, but its raw state suits the desert.

On this summer evening, the half-built house is alive with people. In the main room, which overlooks the hills, the owner of the house, a stocky man in an untucked plaid shirt, has set a long plastic banquet table on the earthen floor, with a dozen plastic patio chairs around it. The table is filling with food. Children materialize with platters of nuts, sunflower seeds and miniature fruit -- tiny pears, nectarines and plums. A tray of small china cups is set out, and a boy of about twelve enters, carrying a brass coffeepot, blackened from use, with a graceful spout curved like a pelican's beak. He pours the coffee: thick, black, sweet and tasting of cardamom. At the other end of the table, a boy with a Thermos pours strong, sweet tea into small glasses crammed with fresh mint.

People start to take their seats. At the head of the table, the owner is joined by a group of men in their thirties and forties. Down one side of the table is a row of boys in graduated sizes, from toddlers to teenagers. More children play on the floor nearby; some very young ones, a few girls among them, peer shyly into the room from behind the door frame. At the foot of the table sits a knot of visitors. There are six of us: four scholars of linguistics, a video camera operator and me. We have all traveled great distances, some of us crossing oceans, to be in this half-finished house tonight.

The man and his family are Bedouins, and the house is at the edge of their village, Al-Sayyid. Though they live in the desert, the Bedouins of Al-Sayyid are not nomads: their people have inhabited this village, tucked into an obscure corner of what is now Israel, miles from the nearest town, for nearly two hundred years. There are no timeless figures from T. E. Lawrence here, wandering the sands in billowing robes. These Bedouins are rooted, even middle-class. Men and boys are bareheaded and dressed in Western clothing, mostly T-shirts and jeans. Families live in houses, some with indoor plumbing and vast sofas upholstered in plush. They own automobiles, computers and VCRs. But there is something even more remarkable about the Al-Sayyid Bedouins, and that is what has brought the team of scholars here this evening: a highly unusual language, spoken only in this village and never documented until now.

The house is a Babel tonight. Around the long table, six languages are in use at once, conversation spilling across conversation. There are snatches of English, mostly for my benefit. There is Hebrew: two of the linguists are from an Israeli university, and many of the men of Al-Sayyid speak it as well. There is a great deal of Arabic, the language of the home for Bedouins throughout the Middle East. But in the illuminated room, it is the other languages that catch the eye. They are signed languages, the languages of the deaf. As night engulfs the surrounding desert and the cameraman's lights throw up huge, signing shadows, it looks as though language itself has become animate, as conversations play out in grand silhouette on the whitewashed walls.

Text copyright © 2007 by Margalit Fox

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