Communication is a survival skill for all species. The human communication system, language, differs from other animal communication systems since it is a much more detailed and structured method of communication. We as humans have the ability to transfer many nuances of meaning in our own minds, along with almost any kind of experience, feeling and thought, to the minds of others with some degree of precision by using a language. When we are talking about language, perhaps the first communication system that comes to mind is of spoken languages; however, sign languages, which are being used by every deaf society in the world, have at least the same capacity of expressive power as the spoken languages do. The main difference between spoken and sign languages is that of modality, which means while one produced vocally and perceived by hearing, the other is expressed manually, bodily and facially, and perceived by seeing. Therefore, our aim for this exhibition is to draw your attention to a variety of deaf populations in Turkey, to the richness of sign languages which are being used by these populations and also to the fallacy of the expression “deaf-mute” which is widely used in Turkish. We hope to eliminate the use of the word “mute” while referring to deaf individuals since they are only deaf, not mute
First and foremost, let’s talk about some of the important points about sign languages which might be overlooked. It is easy to assume that sign languages consist of random gestures and mimics and they are not based on their own rules. Yet research over the years illustrates a very different picture. In the last 50 years, studies have shown that the basic linguistic elements found in spoken languages also exist in sign languages. Moreover, when deaf children acquire these linguistic elements, they tend to follow a similar progression of developmental stages as hearing children do.
The second important point we would like to underline is the relationship between spoken and sign languages. Turkish Sign Language, the native language of many deaf individuals in Turkey, might be seen as a signed version of Turkish. This is an understandable mistake. The unique linguistic structure of TID is not a replication or translation of Turkish. Let us remind ourselves that the deaf individuals grow up not hearing Turkish at all, and the exposure of hearing-impaired individuals with various levels of hearing loss to Turkish is rather limited. Therefore, spoken and sign languages rely on grammatical structures, words and even concepts that are totally independent of each other.
Last but not least, we would like to emphasize that every country has a different sign language. Just as the spoken languages Turkish and English are different from each other, sign languages used in different countries consist of different words and grammatical structures. Thus, sign languages are not universal, and each of them is inseparable from the culture medium they develop in.
In addition to the fact that each country has its own national sign language, there are also various local sign systems which have emerged spontaneously. As some deaf individuals or communities live in rural areas and cannot perceive the language spoken among the hearing community, they do not have any access to education. Not being exposed to another sign language have led these people to create their own languages from scratch. These emerging sign languages provide us with scientifically valuable databases by giving us an access to the initial stages of a natural human language. Therefore, these languages provide us with an opportunity to form data-driven predictions about how a natural human communication system emerges, and which evolutionary processes it follows through before it matures as a fully-fledged language.
Trying to understand language emergence and evolution via spoken languages will take us to a dead end. As languages do not leave any fossils behind, we are not able track which evolutionary processes spoken languages have passed through, and how the grammatical structures of spoken languages have developed over many millennia. Even in the Sumerian tablets, the earliest written texts we can examine today, we see that the languages spoken thousands of years ago had the same linguistic maturity that we see today. Thus, they do not provide us with any valid evidence regarding the evolutionary stairs that spoken languages had to climb in order to reach their linguistic maturity today. Luckily, spontaneously emerging sign languages are unique resources that take us to the initial stages of an evolving communication system especially when the first deaf individuals, the creators, of these new languages are alive today.
In this exhibition, prepared by our research group led by Dr. Rabia Ergin, we aim to demonstrate the emergence and evolution of a natural human language, to explain how we study sign languages and to present our scientific work, which was conducted during our 2020 field trip, along with the stories of our participants. You are to embark on a journey where you will experience the developmental stages of natural human languages, starting from the first deaf member of a family towards a deaf community, intertwined with the unmuted stories of the deaf people.
International Sign (IS) interpretations will be provided shortly.