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Paul Hostovsky on the music of sign language

The Music of Sign Language

It may sound oxymoronic, but there is music in sign language. Even if you don't understand a word of it, you probably enjoy watching Deaf people sign. Most people do. They say it's beautiful and expressive, that it looks like dancing. And they say they wish they knew how to do it.

Actually, sign language has its own music, and when you watch Deaf people signing you can see the music. Signed languages aren't linear the way spoken languages are, with one discrete word following on the heels of the next. Rather, signing is symphonic. It creates meaning simultaneously with the hands, face, eyebrows, eye-gaze, lips, tongue, head-tilt, shoulder-turn – all the various sections of the body's orchestra creating meaning at the same time. A visual-gestural symphony rising up all at once, like a controlled explosion.

Signing has its own cadences, assonances, rhythms, crescendos and decrescendos, riffs and repetitions, most of which have grammatical functions. For example, one beat versus two can indicate the difference between a verb and a noun; a single movement versus a repeated movement can be the difference between simple present and present continuous, or between modified and unmodified verbs. Additionally, much of the grammar of sign language occurs on the face, such as negation, imperatives, interrogatives, adjectives, adverbs, and something called "sound imagery", a way of visually representing certain environmental sounds with the lips, teeth, tongue and eyes. Hearing people often comment that Deaf people are very animated. And while it's true that facial expression in sign language also expresses emotion, it's usually more about grammar than emotion; more about sense than sensibility. In other words, it's more semantic than romantic.

And the thing is, it feels good to sign. The physical pleasure one derives from signing and watching other people signing is not unlike the physical pleasure one derives from making music and listening to music being made. Interestingly, sign and sing, but for two inverted letters, are the same word. A happy accident? Perhaps. And yet, signing and singing are just two different (or maybe not so different) ways that the body expresses energy, shaping meaning and emotion out of thin air, putting it out there for the world to take in. And the manual dexterity required to play a musical instrument is not unlike the manual dexterity required to articulate the handshapes and movements of sign language. In fact, sign language teachers report that hearing people who have learned to play a musical instrument at some point in their lives seem to have an easier time learning how to sign than those who never played one.

Meanwhile, silence, to Deaf people, isn't lack of sound; it's lack of movement. Sound IS movement, in fact. It's energy moving in waves. Which is what music is, after all. And, when Deaf people look into the faces of hearing people, what they usually see is silence. They see silence because hearing people, for the most part, do not use their faces to express meaning or emotion. Their intonation is all in the voice, which is invisible to Deaf people.

But when Deaf people look into the faces of other Deaf people, what do you think they see? They see music! Movement, beauty, energy, meaning. They see intonation. They see gymnastic eyebrows, eloquent eyes, adverbial tongues and all the risible muscles being put to good, resounding use. They see their language, a visually stunning and musical language, full of inflection, anima, soul.

I used to listen to music almost all the time. I always had it playing in the background. But now that I hang out with Deaf people I don't like to have music always playing. It feels superfluous, wasteful, distracting. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy listening to music, but I do it more deliberately, and less frequently. Just the other day, I was listening to an interview with a conductor who was retiring after forty years with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. The interviewer asked him what kind of music he listened to when he was driving in his car, or relaxing in his kitchen, or just kicking back in his Barcalounger, and the conductor said that music was his work, his life, his life's work, and that most of the time he preferred silence, actually. I understood where he was coming from. Because, as much as I still enjoy music, I'd rather watch it than listen to it.

Paul Hostovsky makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. His newest book of poems is Pitching for the Apostates (forthcoming from Kelsay Books). He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards and the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. You can find him here:


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