Why Do Sign Language Interpreters Look So Animated?

Getty Images
Getty Images


As New York City Mayor Bloomberg gave numerous televised addresses about the preparations the city was making for Hurricane Sandy, and then the storm’s aftermath, he was joined at the podium by a sign language interpreter, who immediately became a twitter darling. People watching the addresses tweeted that she was "amazing," "mesmerizing," "hypnotizing," and "AWESOME." Soon, her name was uncovered—Lydia Callis—and animated .gifs of her signing were posted. A couple of hours later, a tumblr was born. New York magazine called her "Hurricane Sandy's breakout star."

Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task—simultaneously listening and translating on the spot—in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that's because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.

In American Sign Language, certain mouth and eye movements serve as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.

In this example, Bloomberg is explaining that things will get back to normal little by little. Callis is making the sign INCREASE, but her tight mouth and squinting eyes modify the verb to mean "increase in tiny increments." This facial expression can attach to various verbs to change their meaning to "a little bit."

Here, Bloomberg is urging people not to put out their garbage for collection because it will end up making a mess on the streets. Callis is making a sign for SPILL, while at the same time making what is known as the 'th' mouth adverbial. This mouth position modifies the verb to mean "sloppily done." If you attach it to WALK, WRITE, or DRIVE, it means "walk sloppily," "write messily," or "drive carelessly."

Movements of the head and eyebrows indicate sentence-level syntactic functions.


In this example, Bloomberg is warning people that the worst of the storm is coming. Callis signs WORST SOON HAPPEN. Her eyebrows are raised for WORST and SOON, then lowered for HAPPEN. This kind of eyebrow raise indicates topicalization, a common structure used by many languages. In topicalization, a component of a sentence is fronted, and then commented upon. A loose approximation of her sentence would be "Y'know the worst? Soon? It's gonna happen."


Bloomberg is urging people to use common sense and take the stairs instead of the elevator. Callis signs NEED GO-UP FLOOR USE STAIRS. During NEED GO-UP FLOOR her eyes are wide and her eyebrows raised. Then her eyebrows go down sharply and her eyes narrow for USE STAIRS. The wide-eyed eyebrow raise marks a conditional clause. It adds the sense of "if" to the portion it accompanies. The second clause is a serious command. She signs, "if you need to go up a floor, use the stairs."

Body position is used to indicate different discourse-level structures.

Here Bloomberg is urging people to check on road conditions before they go anywhere. He says, "The FDR may be open or closed." Callis signs OPEN while leaning to the left and CLOSED while leaning to the right. This shift in body position marks a contrastive structure. If Bloomberg were to continue making distinctions between the "open" and "closed" possibilities, she would use those same positions to maintain coherence while interpreting those other distinctions.


In this example, Bloomberg is saying that the worst will be over by tomorrow and that tomorrow when we look back "we'll certainly be on the other side of that curve." Callis signs DECREASE IMPROVE WEATHER POINT. On the first three signs she looks up and to her right. She turns back to the front on POINT.  Here her body shift marks the adoption of a role. She is being a hypothetical person saying "Ahhh, I see things are less intense, weather improving…" She then drops the role and turns forward to say (as Bloomberg does), "The point is, stay home."

Of course, some facial expressions in sign languages are just facial expressions.


Here, Bloomberg is responding to a reporter's question a little testily. Callis captures his bemused, impatient tone with her facial expression. In fact, Bloomberg captures it with his own facial expression. No one would call him animated, but he can also say a few things without words.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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