Effective Language: Sign Language

One who believes the purpose of language is simply to convey information…is absolutely mistaken. If this was the case, we would write sentences like this:

One who believes the purpose of language is simply to convey information…is absolutely mistaken
if believe (language = information), wrong.

Doing so allows the speaker to say nearly exactly the same thing in only 6 words (as compared to 15) and less than half as many letters. Such a scenario would allow for faster transfer of spoken information and leave us with more time to do other things. So let us invent something to do just that!

In reality… we already have.

Ability, not Inability

Unfortunately, sign language has the stigma of being a “not able” language because it is associated with hearing and speaking inability.  No one, it could be argued, would ever welcome inability with open arms.  No one enjoys being told or facing the truth that there are things they can not do.  So why would anyone want to learn a language like sign language if A) They don’t have to, and B) It implies this inability? Besides, English seems to work and most people seem to speak it…so why change?

Naturally, it is convenient to be able to eat your dinner and speak with your friend at the same time without having to set down your fork before you can tell them that funny joke…but what is being advocated here is efficient language for efficient times. Efficient speech need not be filled with the unnecessary flowers of space-filling words. George Orwell puts it plainly in his argument against “modern English” of the 1940s:  “correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear” Cheers to that sentiment. To those who are working with English learners, is the meaning the student wishes to convey occasionally quite clear despite not using the correct use of “to be”? If so, then you are an advocate for this argument!

Simplicity of Sign Language

Two Motions is One Sentence

This is an illustration for a simple Japanese sign language (手語: Shugo) phrase. The Japanese in blue is the full sentence for “Let’s meet again” (Read: “Mata Oaishimashō”)  Additionally note that simple as this sentence is, it contains a sense of humility. In other words the spoken Japanese is “Let us humbly meet again.”

Then just look at what sign language does! Sign language takes the nuance and nine Japanese letters, and condenses it into two…just TWO motions.

*pause for effect*

Breaking both the motions down, we see that motion A means “again” and motion B means “meet”.  That is it. There is no indication that the signer is using the volitional form, nor is there a subtle nuance indicating humility. The sign for this exceedingly extravagant sentence is simply:  meet again (+smile)

Sign language is free of words like the, an, are, it, of, is, to, at, in, are, and many more. Perusing about the website for American Sign Language (for they have put together quite a useful and learner-friendly one!) and one will quickly notice that this is true in many cases. While watching, take careful note of how many motions are really going into each sentence. Soon you realize that the number of words in the sentence is frequently less than the number of motions required for that sentence. No wonder it is said that someone can sign at nearly the same speed as spoken language, it is simply more efficient.

Expression > Efficiency

What then is language if its purpose is not simply to convey information? Language  is in many ways a large part of an individual’s sense of their expression of personality.  Language, and your voice (a topic which will not even be covered in this week’s entry) are to many the most vital tools we possess to achieve this goal.  So what is the case for spoken language?  Shall we take loquacious flourish and linguistic articulation and toss it to the wind in favor of the succinct and concise?  Extremes reek of, as George Orwell writes, “staleness of imagery”, on the one hand (being too concise) or of a fatal “lack of precision.” (being overly flowery) The answer, again, lies in the middle path.

Recommended Read: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

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