Sabina Fontana – University of Catania, Ragusa
On 19 May 2021, as part of the proceedings to convert the parliamentary Support Bill into law, Article 34 ter states that the Italian Republic recognizes, promotes and safeguards the Italian Sign Language (LIS). The significance of this event for the sign language community can only be fully understood in the light of what had gone before.
For years the Italian Sign Langauge did not even have a name: it was called gestures, gesticulating, mimicry, mime language. It was thought to have no rules and to lack the complexity of vocal languages. It was considered on a par with the co-verbal gestures used by people with hearing, but in fact it is a linguistic system which uses a visual-gestural mode with different rules and linguistic constraints and therefore has a different structure from Italian. It used to be assumed that there was a single international sign language, but the truth is that every sign language is different because it is bound by the codification requirements of its own community, and, however iconic, the choice of sign is always arbitrary, i.e. free and linked to cultural grids. It was also assumed that sign language was used by the deaf who had not learned to speak, but in fact it is used by bilingual deaf peole who use LIS as their natural language (because it draws on a complete communication channel) and, when the situation demands it, vocal language. Sign languages are natural languages for the deaf because they offer a comprehensive communication channel which enables the development of all the expressive and communicative potentialities inherent in a language. Sign languages are not merely a communication tool for the deaf; they are a dimension of belonging. This is why many people prefer to be called deaf and reject the label “non udente” (lit. “non-hearing”), which describes a person in terms of what he or she isn’t (as if one were to describe a person with hearing as “non-deaf”), or “audioleso” (“hearing loss”) which refers to a person according to what they don’t have.
What does a sign language consist of?
It consists not only of hands which shape themselves in a given place (in contact with the body or in the space in front of the person using sign language) according to a certain form, a certain movement or orientation, but also of the body, postures, glances, head and mouth movements. Therefore utterances are bound to be multimodal and multilinear because they involve several articulators (manual and bodily) that can convey meanings simultaneously.
To understand how LIS works, we need to start with its peculiarities, namely how the gestures are organized to convey meaning in a way that is conventional, systematic, arbitrary and iconic. LIS signs are based on different strategies involving the sense-motor system that exploit the countless tasks performed daily by the hands, such as the expression of deictic concepts, enumeration, the manipulation and represention of objects. Since the hands also become components of a language, it is inevitable that there is a continuity between practice, gestures and signs which is at the origin of iconic phenomena, recognizable right from a sub-lexical level. The hand can indicate all the flat surfaces typical of a given entity such as a table, a building etc. The index finger can be used to refer to small, long objects: if flexed in front of the mouth it can indicate TOOTHBRUSH by miming the typical movement; if two-handed it means MEET. In other words, the part played by the hands in daily life inevitably influences the creation of signs.
In LIS the sign is composed of manual and bodily units. It has been seen that each sign can be made up of minimal units known as parameters (similar to the sounds which make up words) which cannot be further broken down but are not meaningless by themselves, unlike in vocal languages. The hands assume different configurations in certain areas of space and with certain movements and orientations. The hands are subject to certain articulatory and perceptual constraints: for example, the place parameter does not go beyond the pelvis or the head, so that it is easy for the gesture to be made and observed. Moreover, the signs can be made in contact with the body or in a neutral space, i.e. the space in front of the signer.
Bodily units consist of facial expression, posture, glance direction and oral-labial components, and they perform a complex role that ranges from the lexical to the morphosyntactic. For example, they can simultaneously convey information of a semantic nature in relation to signs expressing emotional states (happy, sad, angry etc.); they can indicate the signer’s attidude to what has been expressed, or, finally, they can highlight different complex functions at a pronominal or morphosyntactical level in general.
The expression of morphological information such as the plural is achieved by altering the sign or by means of certain units which convey complex information such as position in space, shape or texture. Verbs can be modified for appearance, i.e. to show how a given action is performed (quickly, slowly, and so on). In the Italian Sign Language, therefore, information is organized both sequentially and simultaneously.
In general, the order of the component parts of an utterance is subordinate to the meaning of the verb, to the context in which the utterance is made, and hence to the use of space either in a grammatical sense, where direction indicates the relation between subject and complement (I give you), or in a topographical sense (park the car in the square).
Telling and showing: the gaze makes all the difference
Communication in sign language is structured along two essential coordinates: telling and showing. In addition to “telling”, sign languages can also “show” an object or an event by using a sort of iconic representation. For example, a hand in the form of a 5, if placed alongside another identically shaped hand, can show how a row of people move in step, marching or walking. The boundary between “showing” and “telling” is marked by the direction of the signer’s gaze: if it is towards the interlocutor it is in the “telling” mode; if it inclines towards “showing”, the gaze shifts to an indefinite point in space. Iconicity is a mode of signification linked on the one hand to the sense-motor system and on the other to the systemic characteristics of the language. The semiotic potentialities of the body as mediator of practice, while remaining within the linguistic system, are exploited as a creative resource not only in the realm of artistic performance but in the various registers of everyday life.
LIS queries the uniquely phonocentric vision of vocal languages
The multimodality and multilinearity of sign language open up interesting prospects for the understanding of the nature and form of the language, overturning the scenario dominated by phonocentrism, i.e. by a language model based exclusively on a phonocentric vision of vocal languages. In the light of the multimodality of communication revealed by sign languages, we need to rethink the nature of communication, taking account of the role of co-verbal gesture and prosody, or intonation in production and comprehension.