September 22, 2010

In Defense of English: My Response to 'For Hearing People Only'

I was re-reading this book, For Hearing People Only 2nd Edition (1993), written by Matthew S. Moore & Linda Levitan. I highly recommend it. It has useful information and questions that should be asked and answered. It is an interesting read.

However, it includes several negative generalizations about hearing people. It is very pro ASL and Deaf Culture. It is really a book written for the Deaf Cultured audience. Hearing people reading this may feel attacked or looked down upon.

Some parts appear to be insulting and misguided such as this passage:

English is dry, sequential. In ASL the entire body is used expressively to convey information. Spoken English uses a string of phonemes (sounds), words, and sentences. Period. ASL can expand the expression of each sign according to the signer's mood, feelings, or attitude. English cannot do that; it's much more limited. The expressive possibilities of ASL are virtually limitless. English is uni-dimensional; ASL multi-dimensional. (page 52, Chapter 5).

Let's look at Merriam-Webster's definition of 'dry' at least in the way the author intended it to mean:

a : not showing or communicating warmth, enthusiasm, or tender feeling : severe b : wearisome, uninteresting c : lacking embellishment : plain

I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement. English is not dry. It has expression. English is not only a string of phonemes and words.

I am not saying that English is the greatest language in the world and I don't think it is better or worse than any other languages. But, it certainly isn't dry! Written English include exclamation points, periods, question marks, italic, bold, CAPITALIZATION, "quotation marks" and such. With spoken English, we ask questions, we raise our voices and lower our voices, we shout, we whisper, we sing, and we cry. We have different accents. We use facial expressions and gestures to help make our point. Go sit in on a professional storyteller telling a story in English to young children and come back and tell me that the English language is dry.

Here are some examples of the many ways we can say "Hello, my name is Bob and I am feeling great today." :

1. "Hello! My name is Bob and I am feeling GREAT today! Wahoo!"


3. "Hello. My name is Bob and I am feeling great today. Can't you tell?" (rolling eyes and frowning).

4. "Hello. My name is- - -My name is Bob and, and, and I am feeling great today! (sobs uncontrollably) (Happy tears).

5. "Hello? My name is Bob and I feel great today?"

6. "Hell-o-o-o! My n-a-a-a-me is Bob and I feel g-r-r-r-eat today!!!"

7. "Hello, my name is Bawb and I am feeling gwate today."

8. "Hello, my name is Bob and I feel f-ing great today."

How can one say English is a dry language? When I read this passage, I was not only bothered by the statement that English is plain and boring. I was also bothered by the insinuation that ASL is a much better language. It screams arrogance.



  1. Amen to your blog! To promote self, we often tear down another. To elevate status of a community, we put down another community. We even are having a debate whether we have a deaf culture.

    We need to recognize when we do that and stop ourselves. It is not exclusive to deaf people. It's just human nature...

    As for me, I speak ASL and write English...I adore family play with both ASL signs and English words. We enjoy it very much. My son learned Japanese, Spanish, Greek, and now is studying Chinese in college. My daughter studied French.

    Not everyone enjoys language as my family, and that's ok. My family just does.

    I suspect that there will be some people who will appreciate your blog.

  2. I wonder if they are thinking of MCE. That can be dry.. otherwise we wouldn't put emoticons in our writing on the internet as part of our expression. We can't hear the tone of what that person is feeling.

  3. This book isn't representative of a balanced view...most Deaf people don't need to criticize Hearing characteristics in order to build up Deaf cultural ideas, any more than French culture needs to tear down Italian culture.

    English is a wonderfully evocative language and there are writers that make it sing. So it is with ASL...what a pleasure to watch virtuoso ASL storytellers using rich classifiers and eloquent mime skills! The two have unique characteristics and shouldn't be compared at all as each has its own depth and richness.

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  5. English is dry? And yet Mathew had to write a book all in ..... English.

    A play at words:

    "Why do they call it 'manual alphabet'? Is it labor intensive or what?"

    Nothing dry about the English language. Thank goodness for that.

  6. Wow, I should read this book because I was a bit offended by that statement and I'm a bit interested to see how the author backs up on that claim!

    English is such a beautiful language that took thousands of years to develop and it is constantly developing. So there is a historical side to it. For example, a dictionary. It is such a long process to track down where the words came from (all the way to the Norman or Viking times for example) and how they are defined in a particular context. There are simply so many words that can be expressed so beautifully. I cannot understand how that is 'dry'!

    It can also be expressed through tone, manner and subtlety. I cannot imagine a world without English (or any other languages) because books, plays, poems or any other literature would have not existed. Horror - imagine the world without Shakespeare or Jane Austen's books?

  7. English, just like any spoken language, is far from dry. There are so may accents, dialects, expressions, regional locutions, idioms, tones, etc. that enrich it and make it a truly living language. I am not very familiar with ASL, but I would never presume that it is anything but a vibrant, dynamic language too.

    Nice post - I really love your blog.


  8. As having been trilingual all my life, I regard each and every language as a unique language, both written and signed. There are many rich idioms in Balzac's La Comédie Humaine and Moliére's Les Précieuses -- or Tartuffe (take your pick) that are lost when one reads them in English because some translators do the literal translation instead of the equivalent translation. (Which was why Daddy, who was an international foreign language translator, read Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago in Russian instead of the English version.) Also, one can see in videos the uniqueness of foreign signed languages utilised by deaf ladies running for Miss International Deaf in Las Vegas. One should have seen Howard Palmer sign in a Shakespearean play -- his heart showing wholly and completely in his facial expressions and body movements. Likewise, people attending an opera fall in love with a soprano because of the rich voice equivalent to a fluidly signing deaf’s poem.


Keep it civil.