daughter is a teenager now, but every Wednesday I'll be rerunning some of her
When The Girl was a baby, I taught her a bit of
sign language, to tell us what she needed before she could speak. I wondered if
we could keep learning and teaching her when we moved to Ireland -- and then
discovered that, while children's programmes here do teach sign, British Sign
Language is entirely different. There is also an Irish sign language that has
nothing to do with either. And an unrelated Northern Irish Sign Language.
Contrary to popular belief, I learned, sign language was not developed by
educators, nor is it simply gestures. It is a global panoply of languages, each
a hybrid that linguists call a creole. Every one, linguists believe, is the
result of deaf children in an area -- each of whom had invented their own crude
gestures in isolation -- meeting and gradually blending their signs into a
patois. As the signs spread to other deaf children, they fleshed out the signs
into a fully-formed language, capable of communicating everything that a tongue
This is just what happens in spoken language, when different groups meet and
have to work together. The initial result is a stripped-down version of
language -- small nouns and verbs made into simple sentences, sounding like
Tonto or Tarzan -- but the younger generation expands on these fragments and
reassembles them into a new form. You could argue that English itself is a creole,
a still-awkward synthesis of Scandanavian-sounding Old English with
Latin-derived Norman French.
In the case of sign languages, every language is a creole, for almost every new
deaf school or network of schools resulted in a new language, not necessarily
with the same boundaries as spoken languages or nations, and as unrelated as
English is from Chinese. I am even told that, if a Chinese Sign Language
speaker learns British Sign in adulthood, he will forever sign with a Chinese
So -- back to the point -- The Girl had to learn everything over again. She
does know a little sign, though, and they show up in play.
Tonight before bed she wanted to pretend to be a Compsognathus – what she calls
a “chicken dinosaur,” because they were the size of chickens – and I would
pretend to be a giant Brachiosaurus stomping about. I obliged.
She explained that she was trying to talk to some children who were coming out
of “the fairy house,” but the children screamed and ran back inside, because
they thought she, the Chicken Dinosaur, would eat them.
“Did you tell them you were a friend?” I said. “Speaking Child and not
“Well, they were deaf,” The Girl said. “And I can’t sign very well, because
instead of hands I have these claws with pointy bits at the end, so when I
raise them to speak sign language the children think I am going to claw at
That would be an occupational hazard, I said.