Contrary to popular belief, language is not limited to speech. In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, Northeastern University Prof. Iris Berent reveals that people also apply the rules of their spoken language to sign language.
Language is not simply about hearing sounds or moving our mouths. When our brain is “doing language,” it projects abstract structure. The modality (speech or sign) is secondary. “There is a misconception in the general public that sign language is not really a language,” said Berent. “Part of our mandate, through the support of the NSF, is to reveal the complex structure of sign language, and in so doing, disabuse the public of this notion.”
To come to this conclusion, Berent’s lab studied words (and signs) that shared the same general structure. She found that people reacted to this structure in the same way, irrespective of whether they were presented with speech or signs. More.
The real story here is that minds use symbols, whether words or signs, to create information. But we are not permitted to talk about it quite that way. We need to pretend that it is a big surprise that sign language is a language.
See also: Andrew Ferguson reviews Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech at Commentary
Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness
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