LATELY — 7 February 2003

Sign Language Puzzles

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.)