Despite the scathing title above, this is not ammunition for the Oralist nor the Signing Exactly English (SEE) user, nor an excuse for American Sign Language (ASL) purist to burn an effigy of yours truly, but a serious discourse on whether ASL, as a concrete language, has been shortchanging a certain segment of our population of our nation known as the D/deaf people.
This post focuses on two main concepts: the abstract and concrete nouns. I won’t get into detail or the theoretical discussion behind this subject (if interested, go to BIANYS.org). I will also skip explaining the studies on cognitive rehabilitation and relative size of frontal lobes between concrete and abstract thinkers. However, what I will do is give you a high-level understanding of the difference between the Abstract and Concrete nouns by utilizing an apple as an example. One can easily picture an apple. It’s concrete and singular. Now, to take it one step further away from concrete: “fruit”. That’s a less concrete category of apple. Push “fruit” even further into the realm of abstraction nouns and we now have the concept of “food,” and after that, “nourishment.” Apple – Fruit – Food – Nourishment. It is apparent that the concept of a concrete noun of apple can become more and more abstracted easily. One can easily see the difference between Apple vs. Nourishment vis a vis the Concrete noun vs. the Abstraction noun, respectively.
Now, in the realm of memory, a concrete noun, singular experience is considered the most permanent type of memory we have, the best kind and the easily understood. It can be fairly easy for a 1-2 years old kid to grasp a concrete concept such as apple versus abstract one, nourishment. Concrete memory is considered the best form of memory exercise for folks with brain injury in the realm of recalls and remembering. Abstraction, on the other hand, is the weaker form of memory; however its strength lies in the capacity of “transitioning” many different concepts quickly from one place to another. For example if one was capable of writing in abstract English, one should be able to transition this easily to the abstract spoken or signed English language, such as understanding that apple is a type of food, and vice versa. Its benefit is in its mobility and ease of transition where a concept needs to be applied. Unfortunately, with something concrete, this benefit is lost, for if one was to take an English writing course in pure concrete terms, one would still have to take a separate class in concrete signing and verbal English, since no true transition is capable of taking place, an apple is not identical to food, nor is food an apple.
That being said, albeit a very simplified comparison of Abstraction and Concrete nouns, it has brought me to the subject this discourse is based upon: ASL and its iron-grip in the world of “Concrete nouns”. ASL by itself is an excellent medium for delivering concrete information; however it is woefully stunted for abstraction. One solution that ASL users utilize to compensate for the short-coming of ASL is by relying on the powers of concrete to explain abstract, known as “substitution”. In the sense of substitution, we attempt to substitute an abstract concept by using a concrete representative. For example, we have the same sign for “Food” and “Nourishment”, since ASL is a concrete language. There would be absolutely no way to distinguish the difference between those two words without either lip reading, or having the signer spell out the letters individually, without understanding that this particular word is being used as a substitution. Many concrete thinkers have used this method with varied success, assuming they recall precisely what abstract was being represented by the concrete substitution, and of course the context that it’s being used in. This creates a double work for concrete thinkers. It creates a baggage known as “a mile wide and an inch deep”, meaning that you can apply as many concrete substitution, but it has its limitation and cannot go beyond the first two substitution, you cannot develop a different sign the further down you go the Apple-Fruit-Food-Nourishment ladder, observe that Apple and Fruit has its own sign, whereas Food and Nourishment are shared, the further you go down the abstract ladder, the more the signs are indistinguishable from each other.
ASL users often take pride that their language “cannot” be written (although current scholars are attempting to decipher and fully transition ASL to the written language today, a daunting task of transitioning a concrete noun from one form to another without losing its meaning, or superimposing an external entity as a representative). It also explains why there is an extremely small pool of D/deaf folks in the realm of high-learning field that require heavy abstract thinking, such as theoretical science and philosophy. I’m not saying that can’t be done, but ASL in itself acts more of an obstacle in the higher-level learning than a lubrication would ease the mighty cogs of our academic learning. How many D/deaf folks do you know that actually has a job or academic training in any one of those related field? I could count them all on both of my hands, including myself. Now, how many D/deaf people do you know that has a position or academic background in the blue collar and Deaf-related world? Now, those neither two hands, nor feet of mine suffice as a counting medium. I sometimes wonder, with all the capable D/deaf folks out there, whether ASL has served as “enslavement” to the Concrete world, rather than freeing them to enjoy the richness that our Abstract world has to offer.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to end this prose with a depressing note without pre-offering a solution that doesn’t rob us of the powerful concrete language, yet allow us to enjoy the wonderful world of abstractness. Pidgin. It’s the only form, which I know of, that immerses concrete ASL and abstract English fluently back and forth for both of the worlds, complementing each others strengths and weakness. Even if one used a concrete substitution for a word, Pidgin allows us to enunciate, sound-less, any word on the lips with the sign as assistance. Imagine signing the word for Nourishment and Food, they’re virtually indistinguishable, however if one used lip-movement saying “nourishment”, one would be able to pick up the difference between nourishment and food. This is merely just a superficial example, but albeit a powerful one.
The world can become more accepting for the D/deaf people by taking in the concrete strength provided by ASL, with the abstract fluidness that only abstraction capable English could provide. The conclusion is not necessarily that we need to push an ASL or English only solution, but to allow them to co-exist to enable our D/deaf people the opportunity of advancing in field that otherwise would’ve been extremely difficult to achieve without the unnecessary impediment.
– William Harkness 9/9/9
2. Higbee, Kenneth. Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve it. ISBN-10: 1569246297
Special Thanks to:
1. Oroboros for his editing and critique of this paper
2. Firkinator for her feedback.