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7 Things You Should Know About Sign Language

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Based on the tremendous reaction to this recent piece about sign language interpretation, we thought you might like to know more about it. Here are seven things about sign language that might surprise you.

1. Different countries have different sign languages.

This is the sign for the word "math" in two different sign languages—American Sign Language on the left, and Japanese Sign Language on the right. Why should there be more than one sign language? Doesn't that just complicate things? This question would make sense if sign language was a system invented and then handed over to the deaf community as an assistive device. But sign languages, like spoken languages, developed naturally out of groups of people interacting with each other. We know this because we have observed it happen in real time.

2. Given a few generations, improvised gestures can evolve into a full language.

In 1980, the first Nicaraguan school for the deaf opened.

Students who had been previously isolated from other deaf people brought the gestures they used at home, and created a sort of pidgin sign with each other. It worked for communication, but it wasn't consistent or rule-governed. The next generation who came into the school learned the pidgin sign and spontaneously started to regularize it, creating rules for verb agreement and other consistent grammatical devices. Over time, it stabilized into a full-fledged linguistic system, ISN, or Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua.

3. Sign language does not represent spoken language.

Source: Photo 1; Photo 2

Because sign languages develop within deaf communities, they can be independent of the surrounding spoken language. American Sign Language (ASL) is quite different from British Sign Language (BSL), despite the fact that English is the spoken language of both countries. The above picture shows the sign WHERE in BSL (on the left) and ASL (on the right).

That said, there is a lot of contact between sign language and spoken language (deaf people read and write or lipread in the surrounding language), and sign languages reflect this. English can be represented through fingerspelling or artificial systems like Signed Exact English or Cued Speech. But these are codes for spoken or written language, not languages themselves.

4. Sign languages have their own grammar.

There are rules for well-formed sentences in sign language. For example, sign language uses the space in front of the signer to show who did what to whom by pointing. However, some verbs point to both the subject and object of the verb, some point only to the object, and some don't point at all. Another rule is that a well-formed question must have the right kind of eyebrow position. Eyebrows should be down for a who-what-where-when-why question (see ASL WHERE picture above), and up for a yes/no question. If you use the rules wrong, or inconsistently, you will have a "foreign" accent!

5. Children acquire sign language in the same way they acquire spoken language

The stages of sign language acquisition are the same as those for spoken language. Babies start by "babbling" with their hands. When they first start producing words, they substitute easier handshapes for more difficult ones, making for cute "baby pronunciations." They start making sentences by stringing signs together and only later get control of all the grammatical rules. Most importantly, as seen in the above video, they learn through natural interaction with the people around them.

6. Brain damage affects sign language in the same way it affects spoken language.

When fluent signers have a stroke or brain injury, they may lose the ability to sign, but not to make imitative or non-sign gestures. They may be able to produce signs, but not put them in the correct grammatical configurations. They may be able to produce sentences, but with the signs formed incorrectly, creating a strange accent. They may be able to sign quickly and easily, but without making any sense. We know from studying speaking people that "making sounds" is quite different from "using language" because these functions are affected differently by brain damage. The same is true for signers. Neurologically, making gestures is quite different from using sign language.

7. Sign language is a visual language.

This one is pretty obvious, but it's important to mention. Sign language is just like spoken language in many ways, but it's also different. Sign can be very straightforward and formal, but it can also take full advantage of its visual nature for expressive or artistic effect, as shown in the story in this video. Which, when you think about it, doesn't make sign language all that different after all. For expressive purposes, we can take full advantage of spoken language's auditory nature. We can also take advantage of facial expressions and gestures when we speak. Everything that would be in an artistic spoken performance—the words, the ordering of clauses, the pauses, the breath intake, the intonation and melody, the stressing or deemphasizing of sounds, the facial and vocal emotion, the body posture and head and hand gestures—come through together in sign language. It looks amazing not because it shows us what sign language can do, but because it shows us what language does.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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