July 4, 2022

Stone Deaf, But Still They Manage a Fine Conversation

Who knows what each day will bring?

I was returning from New London. It was 4 p.m. and I needed my coffee pick-up. I swung into a Burger King, bought a cup, sat down and opened a Newsweek I had brought in.

Quiet in there.  Just two men in a booth a dozen feet away. About 35. Engaged in a very lively conversation. But I couldn’t make out a word. There were no words! No sounds! They were talking in sign language. Were deaf. Not a problem.

They were enjoying their “talk.” Their “words” were flying back and forth. They were talking by making signs. Using their hands. Their fingers. Their arms. Amazing. And facial expressions. Frowning. Smiling. Raising their eyebrows. Expressing surprise. So many emotions. I kept glancing at them. Couldn’t stop watching. They didn’t seem handicapped.

One noticed me. It didn’t bother him. He kept right on with his buddy. He was used to curious people like me.

They left. They were still signing as they walked away. I left, too, my Newsweek unread. What I had just observed was more fascinating than anything I could have found in the magazine.

Now flash forward a few days. I’m at the Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook. I love libraries, stop in one wherever I am. Spend half an hour, more often an hour. Always a delight. I measure a community by its library.

This was my big find. An eye-opener

On the way out, I pause by the front door. There’s a bookcase there. It’s loaded with books the library no longer wants. Perhaps donations from somebody. Take one. Take two. They’re free. I always look. Often take one. Sometimes I read it, maybe just bits of it, then take it back for somebody else. Books have a long and strange life. Some I keep.

I spot a big thick one. “The American Sign Language Dictionary.” What an amazing coincidence!

I had no idea such a dictionary existed.

The cover shows four close-up photos of a woman. She’s signing, just like the men I had watched. I thumb through. 512 pages!  Loaded with words and definitions. Even synonyms and references to other words. From “abandon” all the way to “zipper.” Incredible.

But each word also has a small drawing of a man. Just the outline of a man. He’s making a sign for that word. For “devil.” Or “important.” Or “revenge.” Very clear, very explicit. Little arrows show the direction of his moves, even how he repeats the moves. Even what expression he uses with this sign or that one. Fascinating.

The cover claims the book has more than 4,400 signs and 6,60 illustrations! Imagine that! Featuring 1,100 new signs and 1,750 illustrations. And this is an “abridged edition”! “From “the most comprehensive and clearly written dictionary of sign language ever published,” according to a cover blurb by the Los Angeles Times.

I check. It was published in 1994 by Harper Perennial. A fine outfit. Written by one Martin L.A. Sternberg. A blurb identifies him as a professor at Hofstra University and Adelphi University, with a doctorate in education.

Martin L. Sternberg Sign Language became his life’s work.

The blurb says, “Deaf since the age of seven. Dr. Sternberg has spent most of his career working with deaf people.” Impressive. So, for six years he could hear—I suspect that’s harder to take than coming into the world deaf.

The price back then was $18, $25 in Canada. (Those poor Canadians!) It looks hardly used. I take it home. It’s mine for the taking. Who disposed of this—it was not a library discard. No idea.

Why do I want it? Well, a simple answer. I love dictionaries. I have a number of them. Conventional dictionaries. Pictorial dictionaries. Dictionaries of slang and idioms. Even a “thematic” dictionary, which lists words by subject, such as “medicine.”  In English and French and Spanish and Russian. Which may seem strange to you. Even a Latin dictionary that I used every day eons ago. As a kid I never thought I would develop such an interest. I look forward to poking into this one.

Long ago, I wrote a magazine article about a dictionary. In fact, exactly 50 years ago. A wonderful experience for me.

It was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Completely new. Commonly known as the Merriam-Webster Third. Published by G.&C. Merriam. That’s a very fine name. That was back in 1961—yes, just half a century ago.

That dictionary made big headlines. It was a historic event. It was the first American dictionary that did not tell people whether a word was good or less good. It simply reported the various definitions a word could have. Sometimes they were many. A huge dictionary—three hefty volumes.

Merriam  achieved this by building a huge, amazing file of how words were actually being used.  M-W had a big staff of lexicographers and editors. They read an enormous variety of things and saved what they called “citations” from books and newspapers and other publications showing a word used this way or that way. And they paid experts out in the field to send in unusual examples. Words are like people. They change as they grow older.

Thousands of signs. All carefully illustrated.

A few minutes ago I went online to wikipedia.org and this is what I found. I include it because it’s so interesting.

After about a decade of preparation, G. & C. Merriam issued the entirely new Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language in 1961. Unabridged  It was edited by Philip Babcock Gove and a team of lexicographers who spent 757 editor-years and $3.5 million.

It contained more than 450,000 entries, including over 100,000 new entries and as many new senses for entries carried over from previous editions.

The final definitio, “zyzzogeton,” was written on October 17, 1960; the final etymology was recorded on October 26; and the final pronunciation was transcribed on November 9. The final copy went to the typesetters, R.R. Donnelley, on December 2. The book was printed by the Riverdale Press in Cambridge, Mass.

The first edition had 2,726 pages (measuring 9 in wide by 13 in  tall by 3 in , weighed 13½ lbs and originally sold for $47.50 (about $350 in 2010 dollars). The changes were the most radical in the history of the Unabridged.

Although it was an unprecedented masterwork of scholarship, it was met with considerable criticism for its descriptive (rather than prescriptive) approach. It told how the language was used, not how it ought to be used.

It was big news. Newspapers everywhere carried at least a few words about it. I was excited to read all this. I admit I had a personal interest. In September, 1943, on my first day as a fresham at Assumption Prep in Worcester, at age 13, I walked with my new classmates to the school bookstore. We were handed our books for the year. My stack included The Merriam-Webster Abridged Dictionary—Webster’s Collegiate. I used it for eight years (I moved on to Assumption College from Assumption Prep). I still have it. More than a thousand pages, and well-thumbed.

Right away I pitched writing a piece about the Webster’s Third New to my editor as a full feature piece and he gave me a “Go!”

Merriam’s office was in nearby Springfield. Still is.  I drove there and met Dr. Gove. Philip Babcock Gove was a distinguished-looking man in a double-breasted suit with a fine necktie. He spent a lot of time showing me around and explaining their procedures and introducing me to two or three of his many experts.   Later I returned with a photographer. This was a standard procedure on our magazine. He would take shots to illustrate my article. I would take along a draft I had written and  would double-check this or that.

(An interesting aside. On my first trip to any assignment, I would always be paid my expenses. On the second trip, the photographer always got the check.)

I uncovered something extraordinaty about the scholarly Dr. Gove. He had a small farm in nearby Ware. And he kept half a dozen cows and milked them morning and night.

We had to show that! He smiled and agreed. We met him there out in the country in his farmhouse. But now he had his bib overalls on and was out in the smelly barn sitting on a stool by one of his cows. This lexicographer with a famous reputation!

“My hobby!” he told me. He’d feed them their hay, clean out the muck, do it all. It turned out to be a great article. People can be so fascinating.

But back to my sign-language dictionary. Extraordinary, as I said. It was put together with the help of a dozen specialists in various fields. Some gathering business signs, some children’s signs, some Catholic or Jewish, on and on.

It turns out there is a specific finger sign for every letter of our alphabet. D, K, P, V. So you use these signs to spell out a word.

Then there are signs for a whole word—a whole concept. “Carrot,” say, or “rash” or “secret.”  Wonderful to see the imagination that inspired each and every one of these signs.

I thought to myself, “Who used this sign or that one for the very first time? Surely different signs came up for the same word or thought. Which ones fell into use along the way?”

Many words have sharply different meanings. “Opportunity,” for instance. The book shows four meanings, each with its own sign.

I checked for certain words, as I thought of them. Bankrupt. God. Idiom. Mail. Pollute. Round. Urinate. I found them all.

I looked for others but did not find them. But the book was published in 1994, and some of those words did not exist.

I also found phrases. A sign for “Go to bed.” Another for “Go off the track.” Another for “Go as a group.” Another for “Go by car” or “Go by train.”  But I did not find one for “Go by plane,” which I found strange. I’ll bet it’s in a newer edition.

I also checked for some sex words.  I remember doing that with my new dictionary when I was 13. In this one I found “intercourse” and “lesbian” and “masturbate’ and I am sure there were others.

Also naughty words, “four-letter” words, as I did back then. (Didn’t you?) None in this dictionary.

But remember, this sign dicitionary I had picked up was also an abbreviated edition. And it was the first one in the Computer Age. Dr. Sternberg explained this at the very front.

How were all these drawings created? What an enormous effort. Well,  the latest technology was used—a first. Here’s how Dr. Sternberg explained it:

“It involved making videotapes of the signs using different models and then time-freezing appropriate poses. These poses in turn produced computer-generated drawings—rapidly and accurately.”

Oh, I just stumbled on this: A CD-ROM edition of this book was also created. Not included in my book.

This specialized work became Dr. Sternberg’s career, it seems. The original Unabridged Edition took him 19 years to produce! Between that one and this one he produced two other editions. He had a career that was as daunting and meaningful as Dr. Gove’s.

I wondered about some things.  Deafness is a world-wide affliction, of course. So, such dictionaries must exist in other advanced countries. France, let’s  say. Germany. Russia. China. Well, I found out this dictionary is for American Sign Language.

I  think a scholar would have a ball checking the signs for words in those languages.  “Baby,” for instance. Or “Wheel.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to check for similarities and differences in signs in these different languages and cultures? Do deaf Chinese use the same sign for baby as Americans do? Do Russians use the same sign for wheel that we do?

I’m sure that originally each sign was the spontaneous creation of a deaf person who had an inspiration…an insight…a flash of imagination. As a person got older, he would use more and more signs of his own devise. As well as signs picked up from other deaf persons. Deaf persons must pass on signs to one another and the best signs survive.  I’m speculating, of course.

I think of a scenario: suddenly a family with normal hearing has a baby that is deaf. They are alone in their situtation; they don’t know any other family with a deaf child.  As the child grows, the family develops signs for  this and for that. So does the child. These signs do the job of communicating between them. These signs are unique to them.  So, there must be thousands and thousands of such unique signs out there. Think of the task of collecting them all and standardizing them.

This was the job that Dr. Sternberg took on. To me, his achievement is as monumental as Dr.Gove’s. Think of how meaningful it must be to anyone who is deaf.

I kept poking into the book, finding all kinds of interesting tidbits. On the back cover I found a local angle. Some glowing testimonials are printed there. One is from David Hays. Right from our own Chester. He opened the National Theatre for the Deaf there in 1983. Now it’s in West Hartford.

He wrote, “Four thumbs up. Martin Sternberg’s intelligence and passion for his subject gleams in this monumental work.”

Martin Sternberg was a giant, without a doubt. He did for the deaf what Louis Braille did for the blind. He was the blind French church organist who in 1825 devised the raised system of  dots permitting them to read and write.

I feel lucky indeed that I don’t need Dr. Sternberg’s precious book. But countless people do. And how lucky they are indeed to have it.

I’m so curious: did those two men who were “talking” so fluently back at Burger King pick up some of their marvelous signs from this dictionary?

And did the person who gave up my copy ever have to use it?