Book notice: TALKING HANDS What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Aug 12 13:50:31 UTC 2007

TALKING HANDS What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind By Margalit
Fox | Simon & Schuster. 354 pp. $27


In Al-Sayyid, a remote Israeli village, many of the Bedouin
inhabitants are deaf from an inherited condition. They and their
hearing families have developed a sign language that everyone in the
village has used for generations. However, as more and more of the
village's children are educated in Israeli schools, they are learning
Israeli signs. Linguists are hurrying to study the Al-Sayyid system to
discover what it reveals about the human instinct for communication --
before the village's indigenous language disappears.

In Talking Hands (which publishes on Aug. 21), Margalit Fox, a
reporter with the New York Times, alternates between describing the
work of an international team of linguists she accompanied to the
village and discussing the theories and history of sign language. She
chronicles the deaf community that used to live on Martha's Vineyard,
the influence of Gallaudet University and the differences between
American Sign Language and other sign languages. Fox explains each of
her linguistic terms thoroughly, but the jargon can grow tedious for
readers unused to "entity classifiers" and "endpoints of spatial
verbs." The story of Al-Sayyid is fascinating, nonetheless. "After
years of careful scrutiny," writes Fox, "the linguists can truly say
of this language in the desert, In the beginning was the word."
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