Willem Velthoven

Mediamatic Magazine 6#2/3

The Old Media Issue — winter 1991

Sign language is the oldest time-based visual medium. Only in recent decades have those with a normal sense of hearing begun to realize that deaf sign language is not simply a 'crutch'; it is a medium of communication in its own right, with countless variations all over the world.


Mediamatic Magazine Vol.6#2/3 -

It is an 'ideogram' (actually 'ideogesture') language, like written Chinese, for example, which is not based on the sounds of spoken Chinese. In the same way, deaf sign languages are not directly related to the languages spoken or written in the area. There are signs without an equivalent in spoken language and words for which deaf people have no corresponding sign. While there are manual alphabets, with which deaf people can spell words from the spoken language, they are used only as an occassional, supplementary aid. Sign languages emerged in the same way as spoken languages and are just as varied. Apparently, the language capacity of human beings is largely independent of hearing or speaking and is present on a more abstract level.
Sign languages have a structure of their own. Western spoken language encodes much of its meaning in the order of words in a sentence, and cannot express very much without time-indicators (the verb must be conjugated). Sign languages, on the other hand, have a fundamentally 'spatial' grammar. It is practically impossible to sign something coherently without first assigning the elements of the message a place within the 'sign space' (the space defined by the reach of one's hands). Not only do hand gestures playa role; so does the direction of one's gaze and the expression of one's upper body as a whole. The elements of a discourse also remain in the sign space after they have been gestured, accessible for further interaction. Even time is converted into space; the past has a different location than the present or future.
Deaf sign languages are a fascinating area for those who study the language of images. One can discuss, create poetry or teach in them. What would a sign philosophy oflanguage be like? Would a deaf Wittgenstein have wrestled with the same questions? What would the consequences of the spatial structure of deaf sign language have been for his thinking? And could it then have been translated into German? What would the significance of such a philosophy have been for the theory of other visual media?