The Noisy Water Review

In the World Without a Voice:
A Disease that Breaks Barriers Between Realities

Katherine Haveman

Author David Malouf wrote, “When I think of my tongue being no longer alive in the mouths of men, a chill goes through me deeper than my own death, since it is the gathered death of all of my kind.” A chill, perhaps, strong enough to shake a whole society loose of its sense and drive people like Rye mad with longing for the communication that has been lost. Rye, a character in Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” is faced with the very same phenomena, being one of the last speakers of her tongue. Human nature is at its worst in the sci-fi world of Rye, as society crumbles in time with the onset of a disease that strips people of their ability to read and write, or strips them of the ability to speak. The effect of this disease is astronomical, it “was stroke-swift in the way it cut people down” and its effects were obvious, “language was always lost or severely impaired” (Butler 411).

With the amount of value modern day society puts on effective communication, “Speech Sounds” begs the question, can a society function if it is incapable of verbal and written communication? Like painting to art, speech and writing are two mediums to which people convey messages. Imagine those mediums gone, and the world sapped of its communication richness. No more text messages, emails, letters, flyers, articles, newspapers, no more phone calls, verbal conversation, skype, voice recordings; and suddenly our dependence on such mediums becomes clear. New ways of communicating will have to be unearthed for a society like the one in “Speech Sounds” to survive. Perhaps to answer the question posed in this sci-fi world, we can look to real life examples of people living with impaired communication.

As far as conveying messages goes, what good is hearing if you cannot speak, and likewise, what good is speaking if you cannot hear? Characters in “Speech Sounds” may be lacking the ability of speech, but closely related is the very real Deaf community and their hearing impairment. An extremely proud and independent community of people, the Deaf have come up with a few solutions of their own. Unsatisfied with the way the term ‘deaf’ is defined, Ben Bahan, a Deaf person himself, offers that it is not the Deaf’s inability that defines them, but instead their ability. Referring to the word ‘deaf’, Bahan says, “I have no alternative suggestion for a better word to describe ourselves. The closest I can come to is, seeing person. By using that word I put myself in a position of things I can do, instead of what I can’t do” (32). Refusing to see themselves as a disability group, Bahan and other Deaf people have made use of their keen seeing abilities to overcome many obstacles. This is a trait that both Deaf people and the characters in “Speech Sounds” share, eyesight. Utilizing this, the Deaf have developed Sign Language as a primary means of communication, and if the characters in “Speech Sounds” are to communicate effectively, they must be able to create a communication system of their own.

As a ‘visitor’ to the Deaf community, an adult who learns sign as a second language, I can assure you, the effectiveness of American Sign Language (ASL) as a form of communication is nothing to scoff at. To appreciate the implications Sign Language could have on the society in “Speech Sounds” it is important to have a foundation of understanding of how ASL works. With the five basic rules of sign in mind: hand-shape, location, non-manual-signals, orientation and movement, ASL might seem like a second-rate language, but as Ronnie Wilbur and Veda Charrow explain this is not so. Deaf writers, Wilbur and Charrow write an article in American Deaf Culture: An Anthology about the legitimacy of ASL as a language. Where there was once doubt, “Within the last fifteen years, however, linguists have begun to study ASL, and have found it to be a true language,” complete with “a complex grammatical structure, capable of expressing anything within human experience and imagination” adding that despite common belief, ASL “is also very different from English” (110). Sign Language then, a language revolving much around gestures, symbols and facial expression, is a viable form of communication that has been satisfying the Deaf community for thousands of years. This leads me to believe that if the Deaf created a genuine language revolving around their seeing ability, the same can be said of the people living in the disease ridden world of “Speech Sounds.” Communication can be sculpted to the needs of those who seek it.

As “Speech Sounds” progresses, a once isolated character, Rye, comes in contact with another character, which is less impaired by the illness than other people seem to be. This man who is left-handed demonstrates advanced levels of competence, “Left-handed people tended to be less impaired, more reasonable and comprehending, less driven by frustration, confusion and anger,” thus leading to an uneasy alliance (Butler 409). He was referred to as “the bearded man.” That would not do; no reader can develop a connection to someone called, “the bearded man” and further interactions between characters would be stifled by the lack of identification between one another. This man needed a name.

So how important are names? I, for one, have two names, one in English, and one that was given to me by my Deaf professor, a “sign name” (Supalla x). Author Samuel Supalla accomplished something completely unheard of when he wrote and recorded an entire book of traditional “name signs” for the Deaf. Hand-shapes and movements are illustrated to create the common symbols that Deaf people take on to represent themselves to other members of the Deaf community. It is Supalla who asks the very same question, “Names and naming are one of those things that many of us take for granted… Could a person function without a name? What would it feel like to be nameless? Could a town function if all its citizens had no names?” and knowing a great deal about how names play into culture and communication, Supalla arrives at the conclusion that, “It appears that names and naming are essential for the socialization of a person in a community” (xiii). As a result, members of the Deaf community have ways of identifying themselves that does not require spoken word or writing, called “name signs.” This is paralleled in “Speech Sounds” when Butler addresses the issue of “the bearded man” herself. Finding a way to represent their English names, Butler gives her characters “name symbols” objects that they carry with them that symbolize their name (412). These two concepts, so closely related, both stem from the lack of verbal communication; finding ways to identify ones self without spoken or written word.

While I do not carry a “name symbol,” I do have a name sign. Supalla goes on to offer readers a brief description of what a name sign entails, “Name signs are formed by combining one of a small set of possible hand configurations with certain possible locations, which are then blended with a limited number of movements” (Supalla ix). My name sign is the hand configuration for the letter ‘K’, located at the top right of my forehead, followed by a movement similar to a ‘U-shape’ away from my head to the right. This concept may seem very vague, but as Sign Language is a visual language, it is meant to be seen, not read. There is no direct translation for the sign I described; it does not represent the word ‘Katherine’ it represents only myself. Supalla articulates on the arbitrary element of a name sign, “Many people, particularly those just learning the language, believe that name signs have an inherent meaning and often demand this meaning when they encounter a name sign. One might ask, ‘What does your name sign mean?’…Imagine the same question being asked of someone’s spoken name… ‘Why is your name Bill?’ or ‘What does Jeanette mean?’” and concludes that, “Most traditional name signs do not have any inherent meaning” (Supalla xiv).

This arbitrary element applies also to the naming system that Butler has created in the world of Rye and “the bearded man.” This man hands Rye what can only be his “name symbol” shortly after meeting, “he slipped a gold chain over his head and handed it to her. The pendant attached to it was a smooth, glassy, black rock. Obsidian,” this is the meaning that Rye pulls from the object, but she knows that it is only an arbitrary symbol, “his name might be Rock or Peter or Black, but she decided to think of him as Obsidian” (Butler 412). Her own “name symbol” has the same imprecise meaning, “She handed him her own name symbol—a pin in the shape of a large golden stalk of wheat,” she realizes that while her name is Rye, people might have misinterpretations of her symbol, “people like Obsidian who had not known her before probably thought of her as Wheat. Not that it mattered. She would never hear her name spoken again” (Butler 412). The characters in “Speech Sounds” were quick to develop their own way of maneuvering the difficulties the disease has set before them. Using their ability as “seeing people” the characters came up with a system eerily similar to the method for naming that Deaf people use (Bahan 32). So if the characters are able to communicate things like names, then there is nothing stopping them from further developing that form of communication.

Sign Language then, is a complex language with its own grammar, own structure, own dialects, and even its own naming system, yet it is a language revolving around gestures and symbols. Butler has explained that most speech is gone, and most writing and reading is gone as the world slowly falls into silence (411). Silence is something the Deaf are familiar with, something that, in a way, they have conquered. However, they have conquered it through the use of Sign Language, and as Rye explained, “language was always lost or severely impaired” (Butler 411). If Sign Language could be the answer to their communication impairment, then it would have been damaged or lost.

Nevertheless, I have hope that a language so unique, a language based off gestures, the language of the Deaf, could have survived the disease. The interaction between Rye and Obsidian give me that hope. At a time they were two people isolated by their silence, but once together, they find a way to share ideas and concepts with one another. Though not fully developed like Sign Language, the characters in “Speech Sounds” have already created gestures to represent meaning, “She shrugged, tapped his shoulder, then her own, and held up her index and second fingers tight together, just to be sure. He grasped the two fingers and nodded. He was with her” (Butler 414). The gestures made by Rye are being completely understood by Obsidian, and she need not say a word. These simple gestures are not so far from a simplified version of ASL, and as language always does, it progresses and changes. There is nothing stopping these seemingly simple movements from transforming into their own communication system.

Butler gives the reader countless other examples of how gestures and signs are used and understood by different characters, “One of the men who had been fighting,” a complete stranger to Rye, “tapped another on the arm, then pointed from the bearded man to Rye, and finally held up the first two fingers of his right hand as though giving two-thirds of a Boy Scout salute. The gesture was very quick, its meaning obvious even at a distance. She had been grouped with the bearded man” (Butler 411). In description, this sign means nothing to me, but “obviously” the people in the society of “Speech Sounds” have a similar understanding of what certain gestures represent. Imagine yourself, a hearing person, looking on a conversation between two people using ASL and you might feel as I do about this statement in “Speech Sounds”. Two people have sent and understood each other’s messages, isn’t that all language and communication is?

Granted, such understanding in communication did not develop instantly, and naturally there was trial and error between the characters. At first meeting, Rye and Obsidian are hesitant in their communication; perhaps they are unsure how to proceed. Not all gestures are universally understood, so to further communication they had to set up a common language, however this was not without difficulty, “She asked Obsidian if he would come home with her, stay with her,” but after Obsidian did not replay, Rye tried again, “She asked once more if he would come home with her, this time using a different series of gestures” (Butler 414). Between two people who could not use their natural language to communicate, they had to develop their own way of identifying things. Rye was not sure at first if Obsidian had understood her gestures, so she tried different gestures in order to get a response.

In language, this is not a rare occurrence, and it is called Pidgin. A professor of linguistics, David Crystal, dedicated an entire book series to the study, specifically his book How Language Works details every ‘how’ in language, pushing aside the more trivial ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’. In the chapter “How Languages are Born,” Crystal talks about the evolution of Pidgin, “A pidgin is a system of communication which has grown up among people who do not share a common language, but who want to talk to each other for trading or other reasons,” and while “they have a limited vocabulary, a reduced grammatical structure and a much narrower range of functions… they are nonetheless a main means of communication for millions of people” (344). With their English speaking abilities taken away, the characters of “Speech Sounds” do not share a common language and must begin establishing one, however simple it may be. It might be surprising to find that ASL has a Pidgin of its own, a common ground between English speakers and ASL signers. This watered down version of the respective languages is just as Crystal says, “limited vocabulary” and “a reduced grammatical structure.” Stephanie Hall, who writes yet another article in American Deaf Culture: an Anthology, explains this combination of the two languages, “Signing that uses English word order or syntactic patterns has been given a variety of names; Manual English, Ameslish, and Pidgin Sign English, among them” (Hall 90) much like Crystal describes Pidgin, “Pidgins have been variously called ‘makeshift’, ‘marginal’, or ‘mixed’ languages” (Crystal 343). In any case, a Pidgin encompasses a common communication between people who were not able to communicate prior. This process was mimicked by Obsidian and Rye as they relied on their makeshift gestures to adequately communicate meaning regardless of how crude it may be.

In the case of communication between Rye and Obsidian, gestures seem to be an adequate form of expressing ideas; no vocalization is needed for comprehension to take place. But Rye and Obsidian’s encounter is brief and more complex conversations might not be able to be achieved by the same means.

Author of the textbook Language: Its Structure and Use, Edward Finegan works to give students the most complete insight into language with the understanding that “some of today’s insight will replace those of yesterday serves as a reminder that tomorrow’s insight will replace today’s” (Finegan iiv). Finegan, however, addresses language with the mindset that voice is the most complete form of human communication, “Perhaps the most basic observation about language is that it faces in two directions. The fundamental task of every language is to link voice to meaning—to provide words for the expression of thought and feeling” (Finegan 1). He believes that the “fundamentals” of language is centered on “voice” and “words.” Sign Language uses neither of these methods, relying on ‘signs’ instead of ‘words’ yet it is deemed a legitimate language. Signs are a form of gesture and expression; therefore they do not always have direct translations into words. Expressions and gestures themselves are not taught, but natural, and can be sculpted into a language. This language is without ‘words’ or ‘voice’ and instead embodies natural movements and it is that instinctive element that makes me think that Sign Language could survive the disease.

Perhaps gestures do not even cross Finegan’s mind, but another author, bestselling author, Desmond Morris, would disagree. With his own series of books dedicated to the study of human behavior, Morris speaks highly of gestures in his book Gestures: Their Origin and Distribution. In the beginning of his book dedicated to human gestures, Morris reflects on the importance of gestures:

In the first place, gestures have quite wrongly been considered a trivial, second-class form of human communication. Because verbal exchanges are man’s crowning glory, all other forms of contact are viewed as somehow inferior and primitive. Yet social intercourse depends heavily on the actions, postures, movements and expressions of the talking bodies. Where communication of changing moods and emotional states is concerned, we would go so far as to claim that gestural information is even more important than verbal. Words are good for facts and for ideas, but without gestures, human social life would become a cold mechanical process. (Morris ix)

Morris would certainly disagree with Finegan’s idea of the “fundamentals” of language, claiming that instead different forms of communication are not as “inferior and primitive” as others claim. Language is a concept that should not be tied down to ideas like “voice” and “words” since language in of itself is ambiguous and arbitrary. In the same way that my name sign does not translate to ‘Katherine’ all languages have arbitrary elements. With the exception of onomatopoeias, words are symbols created by humans to represent things; the word itself is only a way of representing something in life. Crystal provides a good example of this when discussing the two forms of meaning, conventional and natural meaning, “The conventionalist position emphasizes the arbitrary relationship between words and things, and this is the principle accepted by modern semanticists. There is nothing in the form of the word ‘table’ that bears any direct relationship to the ‘thing’” (187). Knowing that words do not hold any “direct relationship” to the thing they express seems to diminish their importance. Contrarily, I can tell you that the sign for ‘table’ in ASL looks very much like the flat top surface of a table. This symbol is more accurate than the random configuration of letters humans decided would represent the thing: table. ASL then, has the implications of being an effective way of communicating ideas, so effective, it has a greater connection to the thing the sign identifies than any word in a spoken language.

Finegan was not wrong when he said that the key to language was to “link voice and meaning” (1) and while that may be the key to a spoken language, this can become encumbering with all of the arbitrariness of a verbal language. Manfu Duan writes an article titled “On the Arbitrary Nature of Linguistic Sign” in the journal Theory and Practice in Language Studies discussing the ‘first principle of linguistics’ established by the universally known “father of modern linguistics” Ferdinand de Saussure. Indeed the ‘first principle of linguistics’ is the arbitrary element of language. Duan expands on our understanding of arbitrariness, “In order to understand arbitrariness, we should first of all have a deep understanding of what a linguistic ‘sign’ is. According to Saussure, a linguistic sign is a combination of a ‘concept’ and a ‘sound pattern’ in our associative mind,” and more importantly, “when we talk about an object, it always arouses a reflection of something in our mind; and when we have something in mind, it always refers to something in the world” (54). When I hear a word, the thing it references comes to mind, not because the word “bears any direct relationship” to the object, but because I was taught that it is so, because I was taught English (Crystal 187). If I had not been taught English, there is no way I could have derived the word ‘table’ by looking at a table. But because I also know ASL, I could describe that table with gestures and be understood universally.

All I have to do is look at Rye and Obsidian’s conversation to see how they are able to easily express ideas with the use of gestures. After some time together, Obsidian is able to ask a more complex question and be understood by Rye, “He made rock-the-baby gestures and looked questioningly at her. She swallowed, shook her head. She did not know how to tell him her children were dead,” although another set of gestures solved this problem, “He took her hand and drew a cross in it with his index finger, then made his baby-rocking gesture again,” and Rye understood, “She nodded, held up three fingers, then turned away” (Butler 414). This method of trial and error with gestures is not new to me. When first learning ASL, my professor did similar motions: he would sign a phrase, and if the gestures were not instantly identifiable, he would act out or mime the phrase with a different set of motions until he was understood. How different is this really from what Obsidian and Rye have already accomplished?

To answer the question, could a society function if it was incapable of verbal or written communication, the answer can only be yes. In fact, I offer that such a society already exists. It is called Eyeth. Where we live, Earth, contains the word ‘ear’ and for the Deaf community who cannot hear, they prefer to live in the world of the seeing people: Eyeth. While some people in the Deaf community can find their own Eyeth within Earth, others are still longing to reach this planet of the seeing, for in that world Sign Language is the primary language and it is alive in hands of all of their kind.

Works Cited

Bahan, Ben. "Notes From A Seeing Person." American Deaf Culture: An Anthology. By Sherman Wilcox. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok, 1989. 29-32. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. "Speech Sounds." Ed. Joseph Terry. Literature and the Writing Process. By Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X. Day, Robert Funk, and Linda S. Coleman. 10th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, 2011. 408-17. Print.

Charrow, Veda R., and Ronnie B. Wilbur. "The Deaf Child as a Linguistic Minority." American Deaf Culture: An Anthology. By Sherman Wilcox. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok, 1989. 103-15. Print.

Crystal, David. How Language Works. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Duan, Manfu. "On the Arbitrary Nature of Linguistic Sign." Theory and Practice in Language Studies 2.1 (2012): 54-9. ProQuest. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.

Finegan, Edward, and Niko Besnier. "Language Structure and Language Use." Language: Its Structure and Use. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 1-32. Print.

Hall, Stephanie. "Train-Gone-Sorry: The Etiquette of Social Conversations in American Sign Language." American Deaf Culture: An Anthology. By Sherman Wilcox. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok, 1989. 89-102. Print.

Malouf, David. "The Only Speaker of His Tongue." The Complete Stories. New York: Pantheon, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Morris, Desmond. Preface. Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution. [S.l.]: Triad, 1981. 1-2. Print.

Supalla, Samuel James. The Book of Name Signs: Naming in American Sign Language. San Diego, CA: DawnSignPress, 1992. Print.

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