Myths and misconceptions about sign languages, Trinidad edition

Not so long ago, three new metal boards  appeared in the car park at Piarco Airport in Trinidad, with greetings in a variety of different languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese and (I think) Xhosa/Zulu.* They also featured braille and ‘sign language’ in what might be taken as a welcome show of inclusivity, so long as we overlook the fact that, according to Trinidad and Tobago’s notorious immigration laws, “persons who are dumb, blind or otherwise physically defective” are not allowed to enter the country.

Some more cynical observers wondered about who exactly was supposed to benefit from the towering braille. Others who knew some American Sign Language (ASL), noticed that the disembodied and digitally-challenged hands actually spelled out ‘kello’.

Piarco Kello Sign edit

In the ole talk and bacchanal that inevitably followed, the signs were hastily covered by what looked like garbage bags belonging to the mysterious braille-reading giant. Eventually, someone managed to chisel the offending parts off, leaving behind the two enigmatically empty panels.

Reactions to the whole fiasco within the Deaf community in Trinidad and Tobago varied. Some people were outraged, some were amused, but most shrugged it off as nothing new. General awareness of sign languages is so low, and the myths and misconceptions that surround them so pervasive, that a slip of the finger here or there is no big thing.

Sign language linguists do their best to help set things straight. Pick up just about any book on sign language linguistics (no, really, do!) and you’ll invariably find a section debunking some of the most common myths, and there are excellent posts such as Arika Okrent’s 7 Things You Should Know About Sign Language or this nice mini-lecture by Adam Schembri.

Perhaps the most debunked of all is the infuriatingly stubborn notion that there’s only one sign language in the world. There are, in fact, many different sign languages. Embarrassingly, even a sign  language linguist can’t tell you exactly how many sign languages there are, because there are still many parts of the world to which no sign language linguist has yet boldly gone. We know of at least 200, and new ones, such as Hawaiian Sign Language, are being ‘discovered’ on a regular basis.**

In Trinidad and Tobago, there are  two distinct sign languages used by Deaf people: ASL and Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL).*** TTSL has signs for distinctively Trini concepts that you won’t find in an ASL dictionary, such as this one meaning ‘doubles’:****

In many cases, ASL and TTSL also have entirely different words for the same concept, such as the signs for ‘boy.’ The ASL sign looks like this:

The TTSL sign is completely different:

Some hearing people seem to see the variety of sign languages in the world as a missed opportunity. Wouldn’t it be better if all Deaf people shared a single common language? This line of thinking makes a wrong assumption about where sign languages come from. Here, maybe the comparison with braille is helpful. Braille is a system for representing written language in a tactile way, so that it is accessible to people who are unable to see well enough to read. It was invented by Louis Braille, after whom it is named. Sign languages are not like this at all.

Sign languages are not inventions. New sign languages have sprung up at different times and in different places in entirely unplanned and often unexpected ways, whenever groups of deaf people come together. TTSL, for example, appeared in the 1950s/60s in the first residential school for deaf children. Ironically, the reason TTSL exists is because the school at that time followed a policy of banning signing in the classroom, preferring to try to make the deaf children talk and read lips. This meant that when the children returned to the school’s dormitories in the evenings, they had to create their own language to communicate with each other. Other sign languages have emerged in similar ways around the world, without inventors, but rather the natural product of an emerging community of Deaf people.

Unlike braille, sign languages are not systems from representing spoken / written languages. TTSL is no more a signed version of Trinbagonian speech than ASL is a variety of English. There are certainly TTSL signs, like DOUBLES, which correspond to words from Trinidadian speech. There’s even a sign for Port-of-Spain which involves pointing to your tongue, based on the fact that a common way of referring to Port-of-Spain in Trinidad is to call it ‘tong’ (from ‘town’ but pronounced like ‘tongue’).

But the word order, the idioms, the history and the grammar of TTSL are all quite distinct from those of any spoken language in T&T. If you try to make sentences by putting TTSL signs in the order that corresponding words would come in Trinidadian speech, you’ll end up making about as much sense as you would if you greeted your neighbours in the morning with a cheery “kello!”.

This is another reason why the much maligned airport sign made very little sense. Sign languages often have ways of representing letters of the alphabet manually. They are useful for spelling out names, or referring to words in a written language for which there is not yet any sign. But normal signing does not just involve spelling out English words letter by letter. Greeting a TTSL or ASL user by spelling out the word H-E-L-L-O would be not much more natural than greeting them with K-E-L-L-O, when there are signs which could be used instead.

Much more successful than the Trinidad’s short-lived ‘kello’ was’s Good Morning Campaign, which featured videos of people signing ‘good morning’ on screens in the London Underground this summer.

Raising public awareness of sign languages is important, but efforts must be based on an understanding of what sign languages are and what they are not, and must have the involvement of native signers. Without that, they’re little more than empty gestures.

*Why these languages and not, say, Patois, Bhojpuri, Lokono and other ancestoral languages of T&T?

**For a list, see here.

***A third, British Sign Language, was also used for a short time in the 1940s.

****For non-Trinis who don’t know what a doubles is, here’s a somewhat sweary video explaining. Thanks to Deaf Trini linguist Azim Kallan for modeling the signs in the videos.

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