It just looks so much better in sign

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On my commute home from Language Log Plaza West yesterday, I heard this brief piece on NPR about Lydia Callis, NYC Mayor Bloomberg's American Sign Language interpreter. (See also here, here, here, here, here — screw it, just search for "Lydia Callis".) A couple choice quotes from some of these stories:

From the NPR piece I heard: Callis was animated – both in her facial expressions and hand movements – the antithesis of the stoic mayor.

From this Bloomberg News piece: "She's awesome," Lynn Correa, 30, who has watched YouTube videos made about Callis, said today at a bus stop in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. "She's much more expressive than [Mayor Bloomberg] is."

Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that Callis, and sign language interpreting generally, are getting some postive attention. But looking at the videos, I don't see anything other than a (very good) ASL interpreter — in other words, Callis is not doing anything extra special here, she's just doing her job, which is to translate what people are saying into ASL. I understand that there's the contrast with the otherwise somber Bloomberg, and that what is being translated is news about Hurricane Sandy, and that for many folks this may be one of the first times they've seen sign language interpretation up close — but I can't help pointing out here that the hand movements and facial expressions are defining features of ASL (and of other signed languages). The perception that we non-signers have that these hand movements and facial expressions are particularly "animated" and "expressive" is precisely due to our lack of experience with them as linguistic features.

This brought to mind my colleague David Perlmutter's 1991 review of of Oliver Sacks' book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf in the New York Review of Books. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here's a relevant passage (edited here) toward the end of the review. Perlmutter refers back to a prior quote from the book, where Sacks comments on "the wonderful social scene in the student bar [at Gallaudet University], with hands flying in all directions as a hundred separate conversations proceeded".)

Imagine the wonderful social scene in a crowded bar under X-ray cinematography, with tongues flying in all directions as a hundred different conversations proceed. What is happening as each speaker's tongue gyrates wildly, as the lips open and close, the velum rises and falls, the pharynx expands and contracts, and the jaw moves up and down? … In speech the articulators' "virtuosity" occurs in the vocal tract, where it is hidden from view. In sign it is out in the open–in "space"–where it can command the attention of those who are unaware of what goes on in speech. There is a strong parallel between the two phenomena. What seems extraordinary in sign may lead us to appreciate how extraordinary speech is. The miracle is neither sign nor speech per se. The miracle is language.


  1. Matt Juge said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

    Great post!

  2. Stuart said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    " the hand movements and facial expressions are defining features of ASL (and of other signed languages)" – thank you so much for that parenthetical statement. Living in one of the very few countries where an SL is a formally-recognised official language, it makes a nice change to read a post that does not assume or at least imply that ASL = SL.

  3. uebergeek said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    "and that for many folks this may be one of the first times they've seen sign language interpretation up close — "

    I was bewildered by that the first time I read it…. how could this be? Went and checked the video of the interpreter. Agreed that from my layperson's perspective, Callis signing looked roughly like all those other sign language interpreters I'd seen….. er… 20 years ago? Just realized, now that there's closed captioning, you rarely see onscreen interpeters these days. There must be an entire generation of people who've grown up not routinely seeing sign language on TV. Wow!

  4. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    As I'm not a subscriber, I'm not able to read anything more than the brief excerpt of Perlmutter's review — the quote, in the context you provide here, implies that it's critical in a way that I find surprising, as my view of the book is that Sacks does a very good and earnest job dispelling these sorts of misunderstandings about these matters.

    [ My bad — I should have realized I had institutional access to this. Try here instead. Upshot: it's not really a criticism, more of an opportunity Perlmutter took to make this particular point in a way that Sacks may not have (and I say that not having read Sacks' book). — EB ]

    Sacks also spends some time specifically discussing the linguistics of signed languages; pointing out, for example, how the relative motions in space exist in a clear linguistic relationship. He discusses this and other things as part of forcefully making it clear that signed languages are not pantomime or merely well-developed formalized gestural communication but, rather, are human languages that clearly arise from the same structures and in the same ways, as spoken languages do.

    As someone with a Deaf family member (my aunt, as it happens, who has long been a prominent member of the American Deaf community), I've recommended Sacks's book highly over the years. It's not perfect, but it's faults are balanced and excusable by Sacks's inherent virtues — an earnestness and poetry and insight that is unique.

    I think that everyone who isn't a native signer, or highly fluent, and especially if their knowledge/experience is with only one signed language, should hesitate before making any sort of categorical statements about signed language in the context of Lydia Callis.

    On the one hand, it's clear that there's a physical expressiveness that seems heightened in ASL as compared to, say, most American anglophones. And, well, it really shouldn't be a surprise to think that some physical expressiveness might do some linguistic work, in a language like this.

    On the other hand, facial/physical expressiveness also varies by ethnicity, it's a cultural feature, independent of language. Among the great many things that hearing folk simply don't understand about deafness is that this is a culture; ASL for native speakers functions just as spoken languages function for native speakers — it is the core around which an ethnicity forms, a distinct culture. ASL is not English, it's not even related to the signed language of Great Britain. It is, in fact, closely related to French Sign Language. Deaf culture is a far more segregated culture than many might think; it is its own people with its own institutions and customs that exists in many respects invisibly inside American culture. It is entirely possible that the expressive physicality of ASL has as much to do with the subculture within which it exists as it is any sort of natural, inherent feature of signed languages in general. I don't know; I'm only familiar with ASL.

  5. leoboiko said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    The miracle is double articulation?

  6. John Swindle said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

    Mexican Sign Language (LSM) is also supposed to be related to French and American sign languages. The Mexican public radio system recently published its code of ethics in LSM on YouTube. Look for "código de ética del IMER en lenguaje de señas". It is of course an interpretation of a formal document rather than a mayor's oral statements.

  7. bks said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 1:43 am

    And Joe Pesci could have done the voice of Darth Vader in place of James Earl Jones? I don't think so. Ms. Callis has got something special.


    [ And you say claim this based on what now? — EB ]

  8. phanmo said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 5:33 am

    Reading this made me think of an interesting situation from about 7 years ago. I was in London UK in a bar with a (non-English-speaking) Spanish friend whose father was deaf. She had grown up using Spanish sign language. I started talking to some Americans next to us at the bar, one of whom who had a deaf sister. The subject arose somehow and my friend and the American realized that even though neither of them could communicate orally, they were perfectly capable of communicating by sign language, as both Spain and the US use a system based on French signing. Very cool!

  9. Brian T said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    My main experience of seeing sign language interpreters has been at choral festivals of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (and at the concerts and rehearsals of one of its choruses that I used to sing with). Many of these choruses routinely provide ASL interpreters. It's different from signing a spontaneous news conference, since a choral concert's text is set, rehearsed, and delivered in a specific pattern. But the interpreters' work can be very gratifying as they incorporate the feelings, the humor, the musicality, and the rhythms of what the chorus is doing. I remember watching the Seattle Men's Chorus' wonderful signer, Kevin Gallagher, as he came up with inventive, expressive and entertaining ways to convey the meaning behind the repetitive and seemingly content-free lyrics of "Kiss Him Goodbye." I would never have guessed that one of my most vivid memories from a concert in 2000 would be the visual equivalent of the lines "So kiss him (I wanna see you kiss him. Wanna see you kiss him) Go on and kiss him goodbye, now. Na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye. Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye."

  10. MonkeyBoy said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    I don't see anything other than a (very good) ASL interpreter

    You didn't notice that she is young and pretty? Her animated delivery is fun to watch. It is not linguists or the deaf on humor sites such as Cheezburger that are creating and passing along things like this short animated gif of her. Her celebrity starts with her being "hot".

    [ Thank you, Marina McIntire, for saying what I would have said here. — EB ]

  11. Marina McIntire said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    Oh sigh! It's because she's "hot"??? Really? Seriously?

    Not having seen this particular interpreter in action — but knowing that the ASL and Interpreting communities in NYC have very high standards — I'm guessing she is a highly-qualified ASL-English interpreter. And since she's a New Yorker of a particular age and type (young professional), she dresses smartly and looks good. These cheesy guys at have never seen a good-looking, well-dressed woman from NYC before?

    Interesting that we have no comments — at least that I have found — from the audience that give her her only reason for being there: the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people in NYC who want to know what hizzoner the mayor has to say. Making the interpreter the center of attention is just another instance of missing the point: it's about the Deaf people, not the rest of us.

  12. Arika Okrent said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

    Exactly. It's a visual language. If everything you did with your larynx, tongue, nasal passages, and lips had to be expressed in a visual mode, you'd look pretty darn "expressive" too. I just posted a mini-linguistic-analysis of what her face and body position were doing at Mental Floss:

    [ Thanks, Arika, for the post and the link to it here! — EB ]

    The miracle is language, indeed. I think the reaction people have to interpreters when they aren't used to seeing them is partly amazement at how much is coming through with language. You see new things when you translate one signal into another. Code astronomical measurements into sound and you get "the music of the spheres."

  13. Ryan said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

    Excellent post, Eric! I have just two non-technical (ie, not written by linguists) links to add, in case people are curious to learn more:

    one response to this phenomenon/the resulting jokes from a cultural insider, mostly aimed at Deaf people:

    a very intelligent discussion of why SLs/signers seem animated, aimed at a popular audience:

  14. Ryan said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

    Oh, shoot. I didn't realize Arika wrote the MF one. Sorry for both the double posting of the link and implying that she's not a linguist. Derp.

  15. Keith M Ellis said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

    Arika's explanation (at that mentalfloss link) is really good.

    It occurs to me that another way of trying to point out the ambiguities of non-native signers making judgments about this is to compare it to how native speakers of languages which are relatively less tonal experience those which are more. There's a lot of physiological pre-language stuff where intonation corresponds to emotion and related. But then there's also a lot of intonation that's part of language. If you're not native to the other language, and especially if your native language doesn't include a lot of tonality, you're in a bad position to evaluate how what you're hearing is "emotional" or just language intonation, or how the two things interact.

    Just so with the physical expressiveness of a signed language. By necessity, some portion is going to be purely linguistic. And some other portion is just human beings being physically expressive, as they are wont to variously do, individually and culturally. A non-signer is no position to recognize which is which, but it will likely be mostly misjudged as non-linguistic.

  16. Arika Okrent said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

    No worries, @Ryan. I'm just glad you didn't say "a very stupid discussion of why signers…"

    And you're right @Keith. Signers do the holistic, non-rule governed type of gesture too. It just comes out in the same channel as the linguistic type. We speak and gesture simultaneously, and so do signers.

  17. John Swindle said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 5:29 am

    @Keith M Ellis: It's also possible to mistake gesture for language, at least if you're a learner who isn't a native or fluent user of any sign language. Sit in an air-conditioned bus at a busy stop. See the folks signing to each other on the roadside? What are they discussing, and why does he keep repeating himself? Oh, wait, they're not signing, they're speaking. He just waves his body parts a lot when he does it.

  18. Joe said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    @John Swindle

    Of course the person at the roadside might be speaking and signing.

    "Signalong" (speech + BSL) is a not uncommon way to support people in the UK with communication difficulties of all kinds (not just the deaf and hard of hearing). My son, for example (who is autistic and has a severe learning disability), is supported in this way at school and at home.

    Given all that (we think) we know about communication overload and autism, I was extremely sceptical about signalong helping my son, but his comprehension does seem better with signalong versus spoken English or BSL alone (but that may just be a reflection of how poor is my BSL!)

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    Battery powered tv's do exist (or at least they used to), but are much much less common than battery-powered radios, so I'm not sure that Mayor Bloomberg's many constituents not currently being provided with electricity by Con Ed can appreciate the quality or aesthetics of the ASL interpretation. I myself have only heard him this week via radio, and I haven't even gotten to hear his efforts (variously described as valiant and/or hilarious) to recap the key points of his statements in Spanish, since the Anglophone news radio stations treat his switching into Spanish as an excellent opportunity to switch back to their own staff in the studio.

  20. bratschegirl said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    I'm neither a linguist nor knowledgeable about ASL, so this is purely an uneducated lay person's impression. But since we've got family in NYC, we've seen most of Bloomberg's press conferences on TV. He's had several different ASL interpreters there at various times, and there is in fact a marked difference in the degree of facial movement/expressiveness/whatever it's appropriate to call it not only between Ms. Callis and the mayor, but between her and all the other signers I've seen in this particular context. I think perhaps that has something to do with the way people have reacted to her.

    [(myl) I couldn't find simultaneous sign interpretation in Bloomberg's earlier appearances, e.g. here or here or here. Can you point us to earlier appearances with different sign interpreters?]

  21. bratschegirl said,

    November 3, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    It's a work day, as weekends usually are, but I'll see what I can come up with… I saw these in real time on TV while glued to CNN and the weather channel on Sunday and Monday, not online, so I don't know quite where to start looking. But I saw at least 3 different sign interpreters — all women — one was African-American.

  22. Adam Schembri said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 1:13 am

    It wouldn't surprise me if there differences between interpreters. There is variation in the use of facial expression/non-manual features in ASL/English interpretation, because (a) there is variation in the use of these features in sign languages, such as ASL: it's not the case that all non-manual features are highly obligatory; (b) there is variation in the skill of interpreters – I have read that Callis has deaf parents and is therefore a native signer, which is not true of most ASL/English interpreters; (c) there is variation in the degree of language mixing interpreters use in specific contexts, with some interpreters providing an interpretation that is closer to English (possibly fewer non-manual features), and others one that is closer to ASL (possibly more non-manual features).

  23. anthro. ling. said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    I think this conception of signers as more excited, “animated” or “expressive” fits with a general theme of ableism: the things that we do just to get by are often objects of fascination to people who are otherwise disinterested in our struggles. Our coping mechanisms and ways of being are subject to the patronizing approval of others in high-register venues like NPR, but behind closed doors we are snickered at and degraded for the same things, and the hostility is often just barely below the surface.
    I’m autistic, not deaf, but I don’t think I’m the only one who picked up the journalist’s (obviously erroneous) implication that Ms. Callis is perhaps pushing the boundaries of appropriate behavior for a public official following a major disaster. It’s a socially tiring and taxing trope, and reflects more about the ignorance of hegemonic media figures and the callousness of other (or in NYC, prior) mayors than it does about Ms. Callis.

    Even if Callis is toward the expressive end of the spectrum of ASL and/or SL idiolects, making it the focus of journalistic inquiry (even in a lighthearted way) smacks of ableism and exotification, almost as patronizing as describing our president as "articulate" or a female CEO as "professional". It may be true, but to comment on it in a news piece is somewhere between ignorant and mean; alienation is probably the most benign of the potential negative impacts.

    Also, perhaps there is some sexism here (some internalized, some not): I suspect that in hegemonic culture, simply being visibly female next to Mayor Bloomberg will give the impression of being more emotional and/or less composed–to some, anyway! And of course, as Marina noted, Callis is a young professional who stands next to one of the world's most videotaped and scrutinized elected executives in an affluent and image-conscious city – to point out that she is "hot" is merely to restate what is obvious enough to social scientists, that well-manicured women are always considered appropriate to discuss as sexual objects in our society (other than by the decent people like Prof. Baković and (pretty much?) all of us in the comment thread, of course).

    @Joe, I’ve never heard of this, but it sounds like a great idea (not that you need me to tell you). My partner and I study social cues in TV shows and movies and it helps tremendously to have subtitles. Both of us are young and have superb hearing, but the subtitles which are especially helpful to us–because they spell out the unspoken implications that other captioners simply assume we can catch–are frustratingly called “English SDH” aka “Subtitled for the Deaf and Hearing-impaired”. It makes me wonder what else is being left out that would help us understand not just the scripts in the movies but the social scripts in our daily interactions.

    “Ryan said,
    November 1, 2012 @ 4:49 pm
    Oh, shoot. I didn't realize Arika wrote the MF one. Sorry for both the double posting of the link and implying that she's not a linguist. Derp.”

    Your slur against people with developmental disabilities is shocking and hurtful, especially coming out of the blue like that on a professional site. Why do you think it is OK to go around talking about us like this? We have feelings too, you know.

    [ Thanks for these comments. But I'm struggling to understand the point/context of the last bit here — what slur are you talking about? Ryan was just clarifying that in his previous comment, he had neglected to indicate that Arika Okrent (who happened to post the comment right before that) was the author of the Mental Floss piece that they both pointed to. Am I missing something? — EB ]

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