CWA: Your language is your worldview

CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it's 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It's free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I'm at the conference all this week and will be posting about some of the interesting things that I learn.

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In English, we use "I am" statements to describe our current biological state, things that are happening to us, or events that we are experiencing. We say, "I am hungry." We say, "I am dying."

But that's not how it works in Irish. Yesterday, during a panel called There's Perception, and Then There's Reality, Irish storyteller Clare Murphy talked briefly about how the language you speak alters the way that you perceive the world. The Irish equivalents of "I am hungry" and "I am dying", for example, would literally translate into English as, "Hunger is upon me" and "Death is beside me."

I was a little disappointed that this topic wasn't explored further during the panel session, but the cool thing about the Conference on World Affairs is that the conversations I have outside the panels are every bit as interesting as the official discussions.

Over the course of the day on Monday, I spoke with several people—panelists, as well as conference volunteers and organizers—about the links between language and worldview. In one of those conversations, Emily Gunther, a conference volunteer and sign language interpreter, told me about some of the ways that Deaf culture and American Sign Language intertwine.

One of the most interesting things Gunther told me about: A lot of hearing people often describe Deaf people as "rude". Not because of how the deaf communicate, but because of what they say.

Unless they're born into a Deaf family, Gunther told me, most deaf people grow up being at least somewhat excluded from the spoken conversations going on around them. Someone may translate for them, but details are often left out—especially when hearing people try to be socially polite.

Think of all the times we try to describe a person without talking about a characteristic that we're worried it might be offensive to mention. A big schnoz becomes, "You know, that guy. You'll know him when you see him." If your friend shows up with too much makeup on, you might say, "Wow, you're really dressed up today."

It's difficult to translate that unspoken context that ASL without just saying, "That guy who has a big nose." Or, "You're wearing too much makeup." Because of that&mash;and because a lifetime of exclusion from hearing conversations has made many deaf people wary of leaving out information—it's completely normal within Deaf culture to just say things that come off as rude to the hearing.

Image: Some rights reserved by The Accent