Please watch the video first before reading the rest of the post.
The artist in this video, Christine Sun Kim, raises some very thought provoking questions about sound and language. After I watched the video to find out what it was about, I watched it a second time so that instead of concentrating on reading the subtitles, I could watch her face, and her hands as she signed. (Did you get why it was subtitled instead of “voiced over?”) Since she is hearing impaired, she has no experience of language as a sound phenomenon. As she points out, her language is visual, silent. It occupies space. Think about that for a moment — language occupying space.
Her comments about people “owning” sound were intriguing. How, indeed, can a hearing impaired person “own” sounds they are unable to hear, sounds they have no way to tell if/when they are making? That is the thrust of her artwork. She is finding her own unique way to “own” sounds.
Although we experience reading as a visual, silent form of language, even then, we still “hear” the reader’s “voice” “speaking” to us through the words. Can you separate the look of a word, the reading of a word, from what it sounds like when spoken? Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t. An insight that occurred to me while I was thinking about this was that maybe I resist buying audio books because the reader’s voice would compete with the author’s. When I’m reading a good book — a real page turner — I can actually hear the “voice” of the book in my mind’s ear as I read — not the author’s voice, but the book’s voice. Each book has its own voice, even books by the same author.
She also got me thinking about vocal language. I’ve spent my entire career listening to people talk and typing what they say. They call it “transcribing” but what I’m really doing is translating auditory language into visual language. I’ve become very focused on the sound of language and how it looks on the page.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up having one’s primary language circuit (mouth-ear) disrupted. Our mouths and ears are so intricately wired into the language centers of our brains that hearing language is all it takes to trigger the language acquisition process. (We even use “tongue” as a synonym for “language.”) We are hardwired for language; we will acquire it and use it by whatever means necessary. If we cannot hear it, we will learn to see it. Signing is as valid a language as any other human language. It has grammar and syntax, dialect, slang, and even “accents,” just like any other language but, as she pointed out, it operates within completely different parameters.
When I was a child, my dad worked for an office supply company that did custom printing. We’re talking old school, here. They did have an offset press for brochures and things that had photographs, but they also printed things like wedding invitations and custom business cards, and that was done with type set by linotype machines and printed on mechanical printing presses. It was a very noisy environment. When the presses were running, you had to shout at the top of your voice to be heard. The printing department was run by a man and his wife. The noise didn’t bother or inconvenience them at all. They had no trouble communicating with each other when the presses were running. They were both profoundly hearing impaired. On the few times I got to go see “where dad worked,” I was fascinated to watch them sign.
I like watching people sign when I don’t have somebody “translating” — for the same reason I like listening to foreign language films with the subtitles turned off — just to “see” if I can figure out what they are saying. It’s an interesting exercise. You might try it sometime.