A group of happy people exits the lobby of the Luxor Hotel and climbs aboard a sightseeing bus, excited to begin a second day touring Las Vegas. The men and women chat and laugh, poking fun at one another about events that happened the night before. But it is remarkably quiet. Only their hands are moving as they look at their partners, their faces and body positions emphasizing their words. The other passengers on the bus sit there awkwardly, surprised to be excluded from the energetic conversations. It is then that they realize how deaf people must feel when they are among those who hear.
Every aspect of verbal communication is possible with sign language: expressing joy, conveying anger, telling tales, trading jokes. The discourse follows the same logical principles as spoken language. Yet it has its own syntax, semantics, rhetoric and irony, which involve far more than just the position of fingers on a hand: hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures all add to the repertoire. Furthermore, just as Spanish differs from Swahili, and American English differs from common English in Britain, American Sign Language (ASL) differs from Danish Sign Language and also from British Sign Language. Sign languages even have their own dialects and accents, analagous to a Bostonian's clip or a Texan's drawl. There is sign poetry, and there are even a few sign choirs.
This article was originally published with the title Signing Gets a Scientific Voice.