There is something unsettling (or hilarious, depending on your view) about the way hearing people react to the visual idiosyncrasies of our language. When Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreter, Mark Cave, interpreted in real-time Annastacia Palaszczuk’s speech on Cyclone Marcia last month, he inadvertently became the hashtag #signguy star of Twitter and videos of him quickly went viral all because he was, according to some tweets, “making hilarious faces”. For those not in the know, those “hilarious faces” are simply animated facial expressions known in sign linguistics as Non-Manual Features. Yes, it really is a thing. These are visual cues that let us know whether the signer is serious, satisfied, sarcastic or so forth. We cannot hear the subtle nuances of the spoken language so these have to be meaningfully expressed through the face and body language. In other words, they are what intonation is to you so for us they are an extremely important part of our language. They also enrich the language and complete the whole meaning of the signer’s utterance. To hearing people though the whole concept of making faces while you’re communicating is simply strange, just as we would find the seemingly random gesturing of the hands that hearing people use to accompany their vocal cacophony strange.
Cave’s faces clearly had an amusing effect on the hearing viewers, so much so that they took to the social media to tell of their trauma of having witnessed one of life’s linguistic wonders. Some called for his complete removal from the television (because I imagine that the level of their feeling disturbed from witnessing something like this can be up there with witnessing a dignity-diminishing act of someone just letting their left boob out in public even though they don’t have a baby) and others called for the subtitles (closed captions) to be used instead not realising that many Deaf people aren’t fluent in English. Contrary to popular belief, the structure of Auslan, or indeed any sign language, is so fundamentally different from English that sign grammar and syntax are simply not based on English because Auslan is a manual language whose visual and spatial constraints involve the face, body and hands whereas English is a spoken language constrained by the throat, mouth cavity, nasal passage and the lungs. Non-verbal facial expressions and body language are indeed often used in adjacent to the spoken form but to a lesser extent. With this in mind, it makes sense that Non-Manual Features are necessary to get a more accurate message across. Also, when you consider the fact that deaf children grow up virtually oblivious to how intonation and sentence structure are so intricately intertwined then you will concede that the subtitles are not really capable of providing the same effect as sign language is and therefore useless especially since you cannot actually hear the speaker’s voice. Think of how misunderstandings or misinterpretations can arise just from reading text messages! In the same vein, misunderstandings or misinterpretations can also arise if you completely omit Non-Manual Features when you’re signing. Besides, you would just simply look a right lemon if your face remained motionless, as though you’d all just been botoxed up! The subtitles are still useful for a minority of Deaf people whose English is fairly adequate though. So, in Palaszczuk’s live broadcast speech, the interpreter was absolutely needed in order to deliver a serious message to the deaf viewers whose lives would otherwise have been in grave danger in the event of a cyclone.
But the fact that there has been a tsunami of facepalm-inducing and ill-informed comments from a horde of Twitter ignoramuses at all is a reflection of what we Deaf people deal with in the real world almost all the time. The extent of linguistic ignorance is still fostered by many because we are seldom represented in the mass media and our low visibility means we regularly encounter a wide range of interesting reactions from complete strangers in public. The best example of this is on the Tube – I love this. The confined space setting means we are acutely aware of other people watching us when we are performing our mesmerising interpretative upper body dances. Although this kind of creepy voyeurism is annoying we totally understand that it is quite perfectly natural to gawk at other people even when you know it is, well, quite rude. We can surmise your staring to be out of one or two of the following: curiosity, fascination, love, or just downright incredulous contempt. But we don’t do this in order to get attention. We are simply communicating in our beautiful language and we are fiercely proud of it.
~ Daniel McManus