Summary and book reviews of Talking Hands by Margalit Fox

Talking Hands

What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind

by Margalit Fox

Talking Hands
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2007, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2008, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lee Gooden

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Book Summary

Imagine a village where everyone "speaks" sign language. Just such a village -- an isolated Bedouin community in Israel with an unusually high rate of deafness -- really exists. There, an indigenous sign language has sprung up, used by deaf and hearing villagers alike. It is a language no outsider has been able to decode, until now.

Imagine a village where everyone "speaks" sign language. Just such a village -- an isolated Bedouin community in Israel with an unusually high rate of deafness -- is at the heart of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind. There, an indigenous sign language has sprung up, used by deaf and hearing villagers alike. It is a language no outsider has been able to decode, until now.

A New York Times reporter trained as a linguist, Margalit Fox is the only Western journalist to have set foot in this remarkable village. In Talking Hands, she follows an international team of scientists that is unraveling this mysterious language.

Because the sign language of the village has arisen completely on its own, outside the influence of any other language, it is a living demonstration of the "language instinct," man's inborn capacity to create language. If the researchers can decode this language, they will have helped isolate ingredients essential to all human language, signed and spoken. But as Talking Hands grippingly shows, their work in the village is also a race against time, because the unique language of the village may already be endangered.

Talking Hands offers a fascinating introduction to the signed languages of the world -- languages as beautiful, vital and emphatically human as any other -- explaining why they are now furnishing cognitive scientists with long-sought keys to understanding how language works in the mind.

Written in lyrical, accessible prose, Talking Hands will captivate anyone interested in language, the human mind and journeys to exotic places.

Introduction

The narrative sections of this book document a journey to a remarkable place: an isolated Middle Eastern village whose inhabitants "speak" sign language -- a language unlike any other in the world, witnessed by few outsiders and never before described. For the last several years, a team of four linguists, two from the United States and two from Israel, has been working in the village, documenting this extraordinary language and, little by little, deciphering it. In the summer of 2003, I was granted the immense privilege of accompanying the team on a three-day research trip to the village. To my knowledge, I am the only journalist from outside the region who has ever been there.

From the time the linguists first set foot in the village, they have striven ferociously to protect the privacy of the people they are studying. That is their job. Before they could even begin their fieldwork, the team spent many painstaking months earning the trust of the villagers. When ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

A fascinating read for linguists and lay readers alike written in a style that is both accessible and poetic.   (Reviewed by Lee Gooden).

Full Review Members Only (349 words).

Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal

We are well past the point in history where it is possible for a new spoken language to develop without the influence of other languages. What is so fascinating about Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), as the village's sign language is officially called, is that it was born with no apparent influence from any language at all. ... For now, at least, a unique sign language integrates everyone into a single community, whether they can hear or not.

The New York Times - Leah Hager Cohen

I know of no other book in this field that covers so much ground so comprehensively and with such care.

Nature

Elegantly written. ... A masterly and accessible overview of sign languages and research into them over the past half century.

Publishers Weekly

[A] fascinating tour of deaf communication, clearly explaining difficult concepts, and effortlessly introducing readers to a silent world where communication is anything but slow and awkward.

Author Blurb Oliver Sacks, M.D.
Fox's book will be fascinating to anyone interested in the nature of human language or indeed in cognitive neuroscience.

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Beyond the Book

Did you know?

  • Sign languages are not created for the deaf, and are not visual renditions of oral languages. They have complex grammars of their own, can be used to discuss any topic, from the simple and concrete to the lofty and abstract, and evolve spontaneously wherever deaf people are gathered together for a period of time.
  • Deaf people, and thus signed languages, must have existed through the course of history but the first historical records are from the mid ...

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