Sign Language Puzzles

7 February 2003

I went to a Hitchens vs. Danner debate at Berke­ley on Tuesday night. (The topic was “How Should We Use Our Power”; I took some notes which I’ll write up soon.) The debate was trans­lated into sign language, and both Hitchens and Danner used pretty big words—I think about the best was “otiouse” (Hitchens)—which got me think­ing about how the deaf manage to “read” words like this. I doubt I’ve ever heard anyone say “otiose” before—but I could guess what it was because it’s at least pro­nounced pretty much as it’s spelt. Is the ASL version of otiose equally transparent? Or do you spell unusual words syllable-by-syllable?

Also: the au­di­ence was almost en­tirely white. There were some Asians, but I don’t re­mem­ber seeing any African-Americans. This was par­tic­u­larly obvious because I took the subway back from Berke­ley to San Francisco; lots of African-Americans were on the subway. (I don’t know what to make of this.)