‘The use of sign language’, said Alexander Graham Bell in 1871, ‘is pernicious. For the only way by which language can be thoroughly mastered is by using it for the communication of thought without translation into any other sign language.’1 In Graham Bell’s response to his deaf wife’s desire to learn sign language, he suggests not only the primacy of the oral and written word, but also reveals his anxiety behind its transferral into other perceptual or gestural forms – in this case bodily communication.
Graham Bell, although a strong advocate of oral speech articulation in the deaf, never permitted his wife to learn sign language. In his view, supplanting the word with non-verbal forms was to directly denigrate its original content. The removal of language’s essential structures in favour of the gesture was surely a decivilising act. But Graham Bell’s primary concern stems from the apparent lack of consistency within alternative forms of communication: forms that combine a sensual or physical experience with a linguistic one. Inconsistency appears as a threat to linguistic comprehension…
This article was produced from research relating to the project The Voice is a Language.
Image: Meredith Monk, ’16mm Earrings’, 1966, performance, still. Courtesy the artist.