Every community has its myths, but one in particular struck me. In the deaf community, your writing competence is supposedly related to how English you sign or mouth your signs. If you sign in pure ASL, then your writing competence in English or any other textual language may not be up to snuff. Now, if you mouth your signs, enunciate your words a little too clearly, you seem to be introducing an unnecessary element to your signing, as if you’re embarrassed of signing without appealing to another language.
The odd thing is – most people in the community have inherited the classic prejudice of Alexander Graham Bell – that your speaking or hearing competence determines your intelligence level, and that’s readily made manifest by how well you write. Now, if you can’t hear, but you can speak the language, then your writing competence will be sufficient. Yes, despite the general antipathy against the grandaddy of the telephone, AGB, the community still subscribes to some of his prejudices.
Personally, I thought that my writing level had nothing to do with whether I spoke English, or how well I heard others speak it. In fact, I know too many people who are stone deaf, yet their english writing skills are clearly above and beyond the norm of a hearing person. And conversely, I know too many oral or hard of hearing with horrible writing skills.
At a party recently, the incomparable Julia Dameron claimed that the reason there’s no “deaf voice” in my writings is that I “mouth” my signs. In addition, she also said that Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, wrote with a certain cadence. I said that was due to his intent of writing in first and second person, which lends to a conversational style that a god’s eye or the classic third person does not.
Now, I will be the first person to admit that writing good poetry or verse requires a level of hearing in order to detect the rhythm or cadence. But all bets are off when it comes to prose.
Moreover, I think that one’s writing abilities largely depends on what one reads – far more so than whether one speaks and listens to others. There are quite a number of speakers or witty conversationalists who can’t write worth shit themselves. Thus, there’s no causal connection between the two.
The 2,300 year old dogma of privileging speech over writing also contaminates the deaf community. I always expect someone to assert an argument from linguistics that speech is fundamental to writing competence. But this has less to do with a causal relationship than one of the fundamental beliefs of western culture: that speech is primary, original, and thus superior to writing. IN my research, i’ve come to the tentative yet radical conclusion that writing is actually more of a pure language than speech. One day, linguistics will get over its 2,300 year old dogma and develop a science of writing – a grammatology that Derrida tried to institute. And the sooner we push for ASL writing in the deaf community, the better off we all will be.