by Paul Hostovsky
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 kind of looks like dancing. And they say they wish they knew sign language. That’s what I said, and so I took a sign language class, and another and another, and I started hanging out with Deaf people, and I began seeing everything with fresh eyes, with Deaf eyes, and one thing led to another and I became a sign language interpreter.
Today, American Sign Language (ASL) puts the food on my table, pays the mortgage, the utility bills, the car loan. It pays quite well. In fact. I probably make more than most of the Deaf people I interpret for. Which sometimes feels a little like extortion. Like they gave it to me and now I’m getting paid to give it back to them. Because ASL belongs to Deaf people. They’re the ones who taught it to me in the first place, gave it to me as a beautiful, precious, durable, airborne gift held out in their hands, saying: We learn to love the things we love from others who loved them before us; ASL has been ours for as long as we can remember, and it can be yours, too, if you’re willing to learn it, if you’re worthy of it, if you’ll take care of it and always remember where it comes from and to whom it belongs.
If you’re like most hearing people, you probably enjoy listening to music. In fact, you might say you can’t imagine a life without music. Well, sign language has its own music, and when you watch Deaf people signing—and especially when you understand every word of it—you can see the music. ASL isn’t linear the way spoken languages are linear–one discrete word following on the heels of the next. Rather, ASL 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.
ASL has its own rhythms, harmonies, dissonances, 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 ASL 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 ASL also expresses emotion, it’s usually more about grammar than emotion, more about sense than sensibility. 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 ASL. In fact, ASL 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 ASL than those who never played a musical instrument. Go figure.
But silence, to Deaf people, who are intensely visual 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. Compared to Deaf people, they have very little facial expression when they talk. Hearing people are pretty poker-faced, if you ask Deaf people. And that’s because 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 most of the time, I don’t like to have music always playing in the background. It feels superfluous, wasteful, distracting. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy listening to music, but I do it more deliberately, more appreciatively, and less frequently. And just the other day, when I was listening to an interview on NPR with a famous conductor who was retiring after 40 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 famous conductor said that music was his work, his life, his life’s work, and that most of the time now he preferred the silence, actually. And though I don’t know much about music, to my untrained ear that sounded resoundingly ironic. And yet I understood where he was coming from. Because as much as I still enjoy music, I’d rather watch the music than listen to it.
About the author:
Paul Hostovsky makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. His latest book of poems is MOSTLY (FutureCycle Press, 2021). He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. Website: paulhostovsky.com