On language

I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ book ‘Seeing Voices’, which he published in 1989. It strikes me just how remarkable it is to hear his voice springing so freshly from the page – a reminder of how writing can carry voices across and beyond lifetimes.

The book investigates the language and culture of Sign. He writes:

“I was astonished to learn about the history of deaf people, and the extraordinary (linguistic) challenges they face, astonished too to learn of a completely visual language, Sign, a language different in mode from my own language, Speech. It’s all too easy to take language, one’s own language, for granted – one may need to encounter another language, or rather another mode of language, in order to be astonished, to be pushed into wonder again.” – Seeing Voices, preface, p xii

There’s a discussion in the first section of the book about children who’ve spent their early years without language (neither Sign nor Speech); one of the things Sacks brings up is the lack of these children’s ability to respond to or ask questions:

“Children, healthy children, are endlessly curious: they are constantly seeking cause and meaning, constantly asking “Why?” “How?” “What if?” It was the absence of such questioning, and the very incomprehension of such question forms, that struck so ominous as note when I visited Braefield” – Seeing Voices, p52

Sacks talks fascinatingly about the interconnected-ness of the development of language (Speech and Sign alike) with the development of abstract thought, a sense of causation, and also the sense of orientation in time. This leads me on to think about other modalities of language and communication, and in particular the beginning stages of the learning of these modes. Sacks quotes the Abbé Sicard’s writings about teaching a deaf man to sign in the 18th century, Jean Massieu, who had “been language-less till the age of almost fourteen” (p36):

“Pronouns also gave particular problems. “He” was at first mistaken for a proper name; “I” and “You” were confused (as often happens with toddlers); but finally they were understood. Propositions aroused especial difficulties, but once grasped were seized with explosive force, so that Massieu found himself able (in Hughlings-Jackson’s term) to “propositionize”. Geometric abstractions – invisible constructs – were the hardest of all. It was easy for Massieu to put square objects together, but a different achievement entirely for him to grasp squareness as a geometrical construct, to grasp the idea of a square. This, in particular, aroused Sicard’s enthusiasm: “Abstraction has been achieved! Another step! Massieu understands abstractions!” exulted Sicard. “He is a human creature.”” – Seeing Voices, p40-41

So what does this mean for the modality of communication though touch, through movement? If it can be thought of as a language, what then are the possibilites for those of us who are aiming at fluency? Some of the detective work that Moshé Feldenkrais writes of in “The Case of Nora”, (a study of his work with a woman who had suffered a stroke) comes to mind. The labelling and differentiation of limbs seems to me to be the corollary of the naming of objects, nouns, in the formation of language. And the differentiation of left and right in an embodied way seems an important, even essential abstract concept. Orientation in space could be likened to orientation in time.

And what of asking and recognising questions? I’ve received many one-to-one Feldenkrais lessons where I’ve been helped non-verbally to differentiate parts of myself more clearly, and as a result to move in a completely new way. But I’ve also had some lessons which have been all about the questions – the how, why, what if… of movement. And those lessons were the ones where I felt like a child being invited out to play.  The sense of surprise and delight. And also of laughing out loud.

To be pushed into wonder again.