MKB on language at the Conference on World Affairs

Maggie Koerth-Baker describes an out of hours discussion at CWA recently in regards to a panel at the conference on how the language we use often moulds our perception of reality. In her extra curricular discussions, she has a fascinating insight into how the deaf perceive and are perceived:

Over the course of the day on Monday, I spoke with several people—panelists, as well as conference volunteers and organizers—about the links between language and worldview. In one of those conversations, Emily Gunther, a conference volunteer and sign language interpreter, told me about some of the ways that Deaf culture and American Sign Language intertwine.

One of the most interesting things Gunther told me about: A lot of hearing people often describe Deaf people as “rude”. Not because of how the deaf communicate, but because of what they say.

Unless they’re born into a Deaf family, Gunther told me, most deaf people grow up being at least somewhat excluded from the spoken conversations going on around them. Someone may translate for them, but details are often left out—especially when hearing people try to be socially polite.

Think of all the times we try to describe a person without talking about a characteristic that we’re worried it might be offensive to mention. A big schnoz becomes, “You know, that guy. You’ll know him when you see him.” If your friend shows up with too much makeup on, you might say, “Wow, you’re really dressed up today.”

It’s difficult to translate that unspoken context that ASL without just saying, “That guy who has a big nose.” Or, “You’re wearing too much makeup.” Because of that—and because a lifetime of exclusion from hearing conversations has made many deaf people wary of leaving out information—it’s completely normal within Deaf culture to just say things that come off as rude to the hearing.