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7 Things You Should Know About Sign Language

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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Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

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Researchers Claim to Crack the Voynich Manuscript Using AI, But Experts Are Skeptical

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta recently made a bold claim: They say they’ve identified the source language of the baffling Voynich Manuscript, and they did so using artificial intelligence.

Their study, published in Transactions of the Association of Computational Linguistics [PDF], basically states that an AI algorithm trained to recognize hundreds of languages determined the Voynich Manuscript to be encoded Hebrew. On the surface, this looks like a huge breakthrough: Since it was rediscovered a century ago, the Voynich Manuscript’s indecipherable text has stumped everyone from World War II codebreakers to computer programmers. But experts are hesitant to give credence to the news. “I have very little faith in it,” cryptographer Elonka Dunin tells Mental Floss. “Hebrew, and dozens of other languages have been identified before. Everyone sees what they want to see.”

Anyone who’s familiar with the Voynich Manuscript should understand the skepticism. The book, which contains 246 pages of illustrations and apparent words written in an unknown script, is obscured by mystery. It’s named for Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, but experts believe it was written 600 years ago. Nothing is known about the person who authored it or the book’s purpose.

Many cryptologists suspect the text is a cipher, or a coded pattern of letters that must be unscrambled to make sense. But no code has been identified even after decades of the world’s best cryptographers testing countless combinations. With their study, the researchers at the University of Alberta claim to have done something different. Instead of relying on human linguists and codebreakers, they developed an AI program capable of identifying the source languages of text. They fed the technology 380 versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each one translated into a different language and enciphered. After learning to recognize codes in various languages, the AI was given some pages of the Voynich Manuscript. Based on what it had seen already, it named Hebrew as the book’s original language—a surprise to the researchers, who were expecting Arabic.

The researchers then devised an algorithm that rearranged the letters into real words. They were able to make actual Hebrew out of 80 percent of the encoded words in the manuscript. Next, they needed to find an ancient Hebrew scholar to look at the words and determine if they fit together coherently.

But the researchers claim they were unable to get in touch with any scholars, and instead used Google Translate to make sense of the first sentence of the manuscript. In English, the decoded words they came up with read, “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." Study co-author Greg Kondrak said in a release, “It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”

Dunin is less optimistic. According to her, naming a possible cipher and source language without actually translating more of the text is no cause for celebration. “They identify a method without decrypting a paragraph,” she says. Even their method is questionable. Dunin points out the AI program was trained using ciphers that the researchers themselves wrote, not ciphers from real life. “They scrambled the texts using their own system, then they used their own software to de-scramble those. Then they used it on the manuscript and said, ‘Oh look, it’s Hebrew!’ So it’s a big, big leap.”

The University of Alberta researchers aren’t the first to claim they’ve identified the language of the Voynich Manuscript, and they won’t be the last. But unless they’re able the decode the full text into a meaningful language, the manuscript remains as mysterious today as it did 100 years ago. And if you agree with cryptographers like Dunin who think the book might be a constructed language, a detailed hoax, or even a product of mental illness, it’s a mystery without a satisfying explanation.

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