the poetics of asl and NZSL anthem
January 18, 2010 § 4 Comments
First off, a common myth to dispell:
Deaf Poetry- an oxymoron?
The term oxymoron is typically used to mean “a contradiction in terms”. In poetry, an oxymoron occurs when two seemingly opposite words are combined to create a specific tone or effect within the poem. Examples of this would be terms such as: a silent scream, a happy demise, fiery ice, and sweet sorrow. Combining opposites create a more dramatic and heightened tone to a given poetic image.
When we think of the definition of poetry, we think of words put together by sounds. Poetry is often defined by the rhythm, meter, and flow of the words as they are read. This being said, would the term Deaf Poetry be an oxymoron? Unable to hear the flow of words or understand the rhythmic flow of speech, could someone who is completely deaf be able to produce poetry?
Who says signed languages don’t have rhythm, flow or meter? Who says you can’t rhyme in a signed language?
Understandably we might think these terms are restricted to the analysis and poetry of spoken language, but this is not the case. Phonology – usually defined as the study of a the sound system of a given language – has long been recognised as a valid layer of linguistic analysis of signed languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) or New Zealand Sign Language.
The basic analysis of a segmant or phone in spoken language relies, in the case of consonants, with investigating the place of articulation, manner and voicing. As any graduate of a phonetics class will be able to tell you, /p/ the first sound in ‘plate’ is a voiceless, bilabial stop. The three term label is enough to idenitfy this sound as being made by blocking the air at the lips (bilabial) and releasing it (making it a stop) without vibration of the vocal cords.
Deaf phonology has been described as relying on four terms to create a definition of a hand shape:
- orientation – how the hand is held in space, i.e. flat, palm up etc?
- place of articulation
- movement – repeated, direction, finger wiggle etc
Just as the places of articulation in spoken languages are numerous – bilabial, labiodental, alveolar, palatal, uvular, glottal, so too are there numerous articulators in signed languagesm – the head, the lips, fingers etc.
Location is with reference to the signing space. There is a neutral default signing space in front of the signer – movement …seen as in intrinsic part of the phonology of sign can move that sign out of that space or indicate the movement of the articulators within the neutral space … i.e., finger waggling in the neutral space is still classified as movement.
Moving this hanshape from the neutral signing space up to the signer’s forehead produces the verb THINK. Leave it in the neutral space but waggle the finger and you have produced WHERE (http://www.hum.uit.no/a/moren/cv_files/morenLSAsignlanguage.pdf)
If signed languages have ap honology as discussed briefly above, then signed poetry should be able to make use of the same features of phonology exploited by spoken language poetry.
Some researchers have suggested different types of rhyme in ASL poetry for example, based on repeated handshapes – presumably the same handshape at different locations or undergoing different movements are a type of rhyme – handshape rhyming, movement rhymes – different handshapes undergoing the same movement.
Here is an ASL poet Jon Savage with a few poems in his language … I think it is clear they have different rhythms and meters:
For those of you more familiar with New Zealand Sign Language or with the New Zealand National Anthem, the following youtube vid amply demonstrates rhythm!