Why is ASL so important to Deaf culture?



This post cannot answer the title question thoroughly. Nor is this a “study” of Deaf individuals’ narrative frameworks for understanding ASL and culture. (Interestingly, no such research exists.) Rather, this is an attempt to understand how ASL and Deaf culture have been conceptually linked, and how this particular link between language and culture is a double-edged sword.

In his 2005 article on “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World”, Harlan Lane provides a well-argued critique of applying the term disability to Deaf individuals. Lane suggests that hearing people should view the Deaf community as an ethnicity, and he provides long list of properties which are intended to demonstrate that Deaf people are an “ethnicity”: language, kinship, “the arts”, social structure, values, knowledge, customs, etc. In the short paragraph describing language, Lane quotes well-known linguist, Joshua Fishman, in defense of language as a primary ethnic marker. I’ll quote the entire paragraph:

“‘The mother tongue is an aspect of the soul of a people. It is their achievement par excellence. Language is the surest way for individuals to safeguard or recover the authenticity they inherited from their ancestors as well as to hand it on to generations yet unborn’ (Fishman, 1989, p. 276). Competence in ASL is a hallmark of Deaf ethnicity in the United States and some other parts of North America. A language not based on sound is the primary element that sharply demarcates the Deaf-World from the engulfing hearing society.” (Lane 2005)

Anyone with a week of experience in the Deaf community will grasp the common sense of this statement. As Mindess quotes in an epigraph on page 110 (a quote from Schein 1989) of Reading Between the Signs, “For many members of the Deaf community, they and ASL are indistinguishable. Their self-concept is based on being Deaf and being Deaf to them means using ASL.” Interpreting students learn this simple fact from Stewart, Schein, and Cartwright (1998), too: “ASL is the language of the Deaf community.” (134) Minor quibbles aside, these are rather incontestable observations as far as I can tell. And they are – or should be – foundational knowledge of sign language interpreters.

But there is something missing for me.

Something is Missing

What’s missing for me is a history of the ideas that make the Deaf community a community – or ethnicity, or culture, or linguistic minority – and which therefore make interpreting a profession in the first place. I hope the following illustration explains what I think is missing from our current literature and creates an opening for further discussion within interpreting in the future. (See post What Do Interpreters Need to Accomplish?)

If we could summarize the above quotes in a brief assertion that sounds like anthropology 101, it would go something like this: “Language is one of the primary markers of distinct social groups.” This has been true for as far back as the historical record shows. But there’s a twist. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that language took on a particularly powerful role in defining social groups in the sense that we think of it today.

What is language and culture?

The main figure in this evolution is Johann Gottfried von Herder (according to Peter Watson in The German Genius). Locke claimed that language was a natural phenomenon, not a divine gift – a transformation in thought that interpreters should certainly revisit. But it was Herder who gave language a new power it didn’t have before. It’s worth quoting from Watson’s book at length:

“Language identifies a Volk or nationality, and this, the historico-psychological entity of the common language, is for him ‘the most natural and organic basis for political organisation… Without its own language a Volk is an absurdity (Unding). … A Volk, on this theory, is the natural division of the human race, endowed with its own language, which it must preserve as its most distinctive and sacred possession.”

Herder should also be known for his advocacy a rather new idea at the time: culture. For Herder, “whatever the ‘collective consciousness’ of a Volk was at any particular time, was its culture.” (The term Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – was Herder’s neologism.) For Herder, these concepts of Volk, language, culture, and nation are all intertwined. Ultimately, all of these features reach their height in the establishment of a nation-state, a political organization which has the authority to represent the political will of the people – in fact, the state itself is the political will of the people.

Why does this matter?

First, I think Herder’s original writings are more philosophically robust than most of what we find in interpreting literature today. This is not a criticism of books about interpreting, but it suggests that there is much to be gained from reading the original texts of thinkers who we often think of as old and irrelevant. This may not interest most working interpreters. But working interpreters deserve to know that it hasn’t interested scholars in Deaf studies and interpreting either. In other words, despite about 50 years of scholarship in our field, we still don’t know where our ideas came from. This is no small matter. And it would be a great topic for a MA thesis is anyone out there is thinking of going back to school. (See post All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

Second, I think we can detect in these excerpts the double-edged sword that is about to fall on Western civilization. This is a bit more complex, but it is very important. When Herder argues that language is the most natural, authentic characteristic of social groups, he is lending support to the idea that “natural divisions of the human race” exist, and therefore can’t be challenged. This is known today as essentialism. And he is lending support for the newly-formed nation-states of Europe. By 1945, these European states and their many counterparts in the Third World will have experienced a century of nearly unending conflict and war precisely on the basis of these “natural” human divisions. Horkheimer and Adorno will later call this the “triumphant calamity” of the enlightenment. (See The Culture Bargain post.)

Third, this is the time (late 1700s, early 1800s) that what we now call the Deaf community was beginning to take its modern form in Europe and the U.S. Notably, early texts written by Deaf individuals refer to themselves as a “nation”, not as a culture. Culture didn’t take on its modern meaning in English until the 1860s, and didn’t fall into common use until the 20th century. Interestingly, when it did enter English in the 1860s, it was introduced by German-trained anthropologists who were trying to identify and categorize Herder’s “natural divisions of the human race”. In other words, the term culture has a particularly colonial ring to it. Culture, like Herder’s theory of language, is going to but both ways against the emerging Deaf community. The Deaf community will see itself as a “nation” during the 1800s, and by the late 1960s, see itself as a “culture” (with the aid of hearing academics, no small matter, indeed). But culture and language are also going to be the tools of oppression. Deaf people do not have Herder’s nation-state to back them up. Quite the contrary, it will be the ASL users themselves who will later be seen as deviating from the national cultural model. (See Anthropology’s Culture Problem post.)

Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas

Lane was right: ASL matters to Deaf culture. But when we claim, as we often do, that language and culture are inseparable, it can make it seem as if this is how it has always been since the beginning of time. Or it seems that this way of thinking is “natural”. In fact, this idea is relatively recent. And this idea has cut both ways, sometimes hurting the Deaf community, sometimes empowering the Deaf community. Without attention to where these ideas came from, I can’t help but think that we are captive to these ideas. When we are captive to our ideas, it becomes hard to imagine a different world and our options for advocacy are stunted, hampered, restricted. Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas. It is worth our time to excavate these ideas and enrich our ability to be excellent interpreters and strong advocates.

This is not a definitive answer to the question, “Why Does ASL Matter to the Deaf community?”. But it is an often-overlooked part of a larger answer.

List of references:

  • Lane, H. L. (2005). Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10(3), 291–310. doi:10.1093/deafed/eni030
  • Mindess, A. (1999). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Intercultural Press.
  • Stewart, D. A., Schein, J. D., & Cartwright, B. E. (1998). Sign language interpreting: Exploring its art and science.
  • Watson, P. (2011). The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. HarperCollins.

Interpreter’s Library: Reading Between the Signs

Anna Mindess’ Reading Between the Signs (1999) is probably the single best known book about interpreting on the market. While I have never met Anna Mindess, her reputation and website (here) suggest that she is as interesting and enthusiastic as they come. And the fact that she has even published a book about interpreting puts her in the very small company of six or seven interpreters alive today with published manuscripts.


So what about this book? The subtitle to the book tells the story: intercultural communication for sign language interpreters. Mindess introduces interpreters to the field of intercultural communication, itself an overlap of anthropology and communication. The book accurately claims that linguistic knowledge is only part of the skill set that interpreters need to do their job. Interpreters are also cultural mediators, and therefore need to be familiar with Deaf and hearing cultures. She gives concrete examples of interpreting conundrums that have more to do with cultural mismatch than technical linguistic differences. And she provides strategies of how to negotiate and mediate these conundrums with sensitivity and professionalism. The presentation is thorough, cited, and well-written for an audience of working interpreters. In my view, every working interpreter should own this book and have read it.

The book is not without its problems, however. The concept of culture is central to the entire book. Yet the definition Mindess uses for culture comes from Edward B. Tylor’s 1871 book Primitive Culture. Here it is:

Culture or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society

His definition of culture is straightforward enough. But in my reading, there are three problems with using Tylor.

  1. Using Tylor ignores a century and a half of extremely useful work on theories of culture. I’m thinking of the Burmingham school of cultural theory, the Frankfurt School in Germany (and the US), postcolonial studies, and the critical turn in anthropology itself. See Raymond Williams’ Keywords, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, and Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture. These texts refine, critique, and extent the 19th Century’s notion of culture/Kultur.
  2. Tylor’s definition is overly broad. Culture seems to be a bucket that you can fill with whatever you want, an “empty signifier” by virtue of its nearly unrestricted flexibility. Williams says as much in Keywords.
  3. Anthropological research in the 19th Century was largely a colonial affair, and Tylor is no exception. It seems awkward to return to the colonial era to find our language for talking about our work with the Deaf community.

The other main figure of the book is Edward T. Hall, whose research on intercultural communication can be seen as a solution to the problem of U.S. hegemony in the Third World following World War II. This can be seen in the opening montage, which illustrates a major interpreting error during the Vietnam War. A critical reader might ask, “and what is the U.S. doing in Vietnam in the first place, where they need interpreters?” This is not necessarily Mindess’ fault. But it raises the troubling history early on that professional interpreting has some of its roots in the modern military apparatus, from the courtrooms in Nuremberg to the fields of Vietnam. Mindess isn’t responsible for investigating this, but it might behoove some of us to think about it. (As a political and legal geographer, this is my area of study, so I can’t help but think about these things.)

Hall’s other writing on intercultural communication, while excellent and widely cited, sometimes depend on awkward stereotypes, such as between “Arabs” and “Westerners” (bringing to mind Edward Said’s critique of such distinctions in Orientalism). Mindess inherits some of these problems through Tylor and Hall, and the reader might sometimes feel that the differences between Deaf and hearing are overemphasized in order to keep Tylor’s and Hall’s ideas functional. For instance, even though Mindess brings critical awareness of hearing, North American culture, her examples of culture tend towards other-ness, including “igloos” and “ASL”, but not spoken English or the suburban housing developments. There is much more to the book than this, so don’t see the book narrowly through these comments.

None of these issues compromise the value of the book, nor should they undermine Mindess’ expertise. Quite the contrary. Her book, like all books, are a product of a specific historical moment. It is not just a book about Mindess or about interpreting; the book itself tells us something about the field of interpreting. Groundbreaking books require authors to step bravely into unexplored territory. Mindess has done this. Those who come after Mindess must engage with her work – we have no choice. We should neither ignore it nor passively yield to it. We must honor her work by working through her ideas, building on them, and moving her spirit forward. Nor do we have to either tacitly accept her definition of culture or jettison the term altogether. Instead, we should be inspired by Mindess (as I have been) to make our mark on the field by adding depth and breadth to the concepts we use.

Only Deaf? Only hearing? – on the Limits of Contemporary Interpreting Frameworks

Most texts on ASL interpreting assume (rather than demonstrate) that a concrete, uncrossable chasm exists between Deaf and hearing people, and that interpreters must necessarily fill that void. In this metaphor, an impossible weight hangs on the back of the interpreter to do their job perfectly or risk oppressing Deaf people. Hence the constant chatter about the authenticity of individual interpreters to the exclusion of economic, structural, and theoretical conditions of interpreting as a social practice.

Yet consider this. At a recent interpreting assignment I was interpreting for a Deaf parent who was, as we say, Deaf-of-Deaf, and had a college education. There is a reciprocal relationship between English fluency (spoken or written) and educational attainment, such that this person was conversationally fluent in what I call “mouthed English”. That is, they could turn to another parent and mouth greetings, complaints, and short comments without my assistance. Equally important, they were familiar with the schema of being the parent of a school-aged child, and knew the right time to turn to another parent and eye-roll, feign a yawn, nod approval, etc. If you’ve interpreted for longer than a week, you know what I’m talking about.

Does this person need me to jump alongside them and interpret everything? No. In fact, my attempt to sign everything potentially interrupts their ability to have a face-to-face relationship with other parents. So I intentionally avoided interpreting side comments unless I saw them visibly struggling or when they called me over.

My point isn’t to debate the ethical aspects of my decisions. Rather, I want to emphasize how much this experience contrasts with virtually every major text on interpreting. Pick a book on interpreting and read it with this question in mind: Can two Deaf and hearing individuals have a successful conversation or relationship without the interpreter? Based on the definitions and descriptions of most texts, the answer is “no”. The DEAF-WORLD and hearing world appear to be mutually exclusive, and the only bridge, virtually the only one with any degree of agency, is the interpreter. Behind this model of interpreting is the (implicit and sometimes explicit) assumption that Deaf individuals are defined solely by their Deaf identity, and hearing individuals are identified by their hearing (non-Deaf) identity.

So what’s the problem? The problem is, these models have inexplicably glossed over the essentializing nature of this concept of identity, and therefore foreclosed the possibility that Deaf persons can have relationships with hearing people oriented around other forms of identity: parenthood, sexual orientation, educational level, economic position, etc. Instead, in nearly every chart and every encounter we are forced to interpret social interaction through the narrow lens of Deaf v. hearing.

At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will need to address the empirical and theoretical problems with this conceptualization. And we will have to develop a more sophisticated, albeit more practical, framework for understanding social relations that include – but do not limit us to – Deaf and hearing subject positions.

The Culture Bargain (excerpt)

[The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of a presentation I gave at last year’s OCRID conference called the “Culture Bargain”. The guiding question for my talk was, “Did we (interpreters) get the idea of culture right?”. The conclusion is: well, sort of, but not really.]

I want to make two big picture conclusions. First, what we call culture is really just one particular idea of culture, and one that causes some problems for us. We should be willing to look for other approaches to understanding culture. There are some real examples, but I don’t have time to go into it now. Second, these views of culture overlook the crucial role of power in understanding social differences. It’s not just that deaf and hearing people are culturally different, but that the difference are very often formed through economic inequality, marginalization, and privilege.

I just want to show you how scholars who are studying colonialism and race talk about culture and identity. I’m doing this just so you can see that there really are some alternatives. I also admit that these quotes are a little dense. But I will just summarize why they are important.

“The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation.” – Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Here’s what I want you to get from this quote. Bhabha is Indian and writes about British colonialism in India. He is saying, to paraphrase, “you might think that culture is just something that makes Indians different than the British. But if you do that, you will ignore the fact that those differences were formed through a violent history between British and Indians.” Don’t think about culture as something you have or don’t have. Culture is ongoing negotiation, a constant power-struggle. If you think culture is just simple differences between hearing and deaf, you are actually helping to mask that actual history.

The next quote is on identify from the race scholar Stuart Hall.

“…the ‘unities’ which identities proclaim are, in fact, constructed within the play of power and exclusion, and are the result, not the natural and inevitable or primordial totality but of the naturalized, over-determined process of ‘closure’.” – Stuart Hall, Who Needs Identity?

Here’s what I want you to get from this quote. Hall is saying, “if you think that identity is just one thing” – like being black, being deaf – “you are missing the fact that your identity is not just a natural part of you. Identity is always formed through power and exclusion.” In the U.S., for instance, white identity has been formed through the exclusion of blackness, and Black identity has been formed through the exclusion of whiteness.

The process of identity formation is not an innocent process. Our job is to understand how each of us, at any given moment, is in the process of negotiating and re-negotiating our identity.