Reflections on silence

2022 November 18

On September 23, I lost something important to me – my voice. Having mostly recovered now, 7 weeks later, I wanted to look back at my experience of being effectively mute.

This is not quite my first time being unable to talk aloud with others: in the two years that I lived in the Netherlands and Italy, my grasp of the local languages was limited to basic reading and writing with minimal spoken dialogue1Any communication difficulties I had when living in England I will blame on the English.. However, in this case my muteness was more total, as I was denied even my native tongue – for the first weeks even speaking a single word would cause significant discomfort.

Communication, then, was by paper, or by waving of hands; and on the few occasions where my hand grew too tired to write or wave then communication was not at all. As I became used to not speaking aloud, at times I had to repress an instinct to substitute Italian words for English: I knew I couldn’t say “Let’s go!” so I would jump to “Andiamo!” as the next best alternative2I wonder if Italian would be a little easier on the vocal cords than English; fortunately I did not favor Dutch as the Dutch ‘g’ would have been ruinous for me to try to say..

Surprisingly I was not much frustrated by being unable to say what was on my mind. Mostly I remained placid, and kept my thoughts to myself, while listening to others talk. Perhaps too placid: I found long-form writing difficult, and I am tempted to draw a connection between losing my literal voice and suppression of my metaphorical, literary voice. The few times I felt genuinely frustrated by difficulties communicating were when gesturing something whose interpretation I felt should have been obvious.

Of course, why gesture wildly when there is a carefully designed system for doing so clearly? I did spend some time learning very elementary ASL, motivated variously for its immediate use, the long-term benefit of knowing another language, and out of the occasional tinge of fear that it would become my primary language if I didn’t heal.

Often finger-spelling is the first ASL taught, but I skipped it as it was useless to me: it was slower than writing, I always had a pad of paper, and I didn’t know anybody who knew ASL. Indeed when hanging out with someone the first thing I did was play a sort of game of teaching them 3 or 4 ASL signs – truly everyone should learn a few signs of ASL, or another sign language, for the many situations it is a convenient substitute for spoken language. Soldiers, for example, have to learn signs for communication, and the battlefield is one of the most demanding settings for optimizing all behavior to a singular purpose.

In fact, let us do that now: the two signs every person should be able to do and recognize are yes and no:

It may seem strange for ASL to have signs for yes and no when nodding and shaking are already universally understood. I have found the hand signs to be much superior. Firstly, while not a concern for me, I suspect that nodding/shaking can interfere with watching what someone else is signing. The hand signs are faster and less effort: I can easily toss off a quick hand knock or pinch whereas nodding and shaking require multiple large motions of the head3I even developed a terrible headache from nodding / shaking too vigorously too often, which only went away after strictly keeping to the hand signs.. And lastly, the reach of my arm is much greater than the reach of my neck, allowing me to sign behind my back4My understanding is that hand positioning is quite important in ASL, but I knew few enough signs that I could be quite lax with no possibility of confusion. Do ASL users ever sign behind their back? It seems like it could be a very severe insult – a deaf person turning their back is an even more absolute rejection than a speaking person covering the ears. or in odd directions without having to move my whole body; one frequent application for this was the many times I was delegated navigation duties in the car – the driver cannot watch for head motions but hand signs are visible.

Why doesn’t ASL use, say, the broadly-known signs thumbs up and thumbs down? Thumbs up/down mostly means good/bad, not yes/no, which are neutral per se. When talking with strangers I would use thumbs up for yes and wave an open hand, palm down (like wiping a table) for no, which were well-understood.

Introductory ASL material almost exclusively focuses on signing vocabulary; most of the material I found was of terrible quality. There are many possible reasons for this:

But there is more to a language than its vocabulary, and I did not find much exposition on ASL grammar. From what I saw, it seems that the nature of the grammar of signed languages is fundamentally different than of spoken languages: instead of the focus being on sentence order and word-endings inflections, the main concern is various spatial or temporal modifiers that allow one sign to carry significant detail.

Let us look at a few examples of grammatical considerations in ASL5there may be errors, caveat lector. Open-ended questions are marked with furrowed brows, and yes/no questions with raised brows6Rhetorical questions, or the greeting “how are you”, also use raised brows as they are not really soliciting an open-ended response.. For longer questions, the brows and question word are often moved to the end of the sentence, for similar reason as spoken-English rising tone being at the end of a question.

As forming signs can be much slower than speaking the corresponding words7I would be curious about the use of filler signs in ASL: in English speech can easily outpace thought, thus necessitating fillers. I assume they are less common in ASL?, and signing is more effort than speaking, ASL often omits unnecessary information, instead relying on sensible defaults that can be overridden as necessary. Thus “what” does not normally need to be signed, as a different question word like “who” or “why” would be specified if appropriate. Tense is unspecified; a sentence would start with a time sign if the audience (viewer?) is unaware of when the events took place. There is no sign for the copula “to be”: it is simply omitted.

ASL word order is roughly as in English, but with a few differences and overall slightly more loose. In short sentences the subject can be repeated at the end; thus “ME COLLEGE ME” means “I am a college student” or “I am attending college”.

Signs can be inflected in many ways to give more information, or for tone or emphasis. “NO” with a single, firm pinch is a formal, definite no, while two soft taps would be a more casual or friendly no. Direction and movement are perhaps the most important forms of inflection; the “NO” sign made towards yourself means “He/she told me no.”. Some signs can be interpreted (or may have originated) as inflections on other signs that have become frozen into a specific meaning: thus the sign for “thank you” is made by signing “good” in the direction of the person you are thanking.

A key communication efficiency is avoiding repetition. When an item is mentioned more than once it only needs to be specified on first use, and then simpler signs might be used for future references. Say, when discussing your absent friend Allison, you might first fingerspell Allison or give their namesign and then attach that to a point in space; from then on you only need to refer to that point in space to mean Allison. As an extended example:

“Fred gave the book to Bob.” […] The fact that the English sentence is using the word “the” indicates that the book has been previously identified and so when signing the sentence in ASL the previously identified book now be incorporated into a classifier handshape that looks as if a person were holding a book (CLASSIFIER:“flattened C”) and simultaneously move that classifier starting from the location of where Fred has been already been established and ending at the location where Bob has already been established. Thus the whole sentence will be accomplished with a single sign moved in a specific direction from and to specific locations accompanied by a slight nod of the head: Location-“FRED”-CLASSIFIER:“flattened C”-(give to)-location”Bob”-(nod). -Bill Vicars

Evidently I became quite intrigued by ASL grammar.

I did take same time to ponder on being deaf or mute in relation to hearing society. Being mute, from my experience8Coincidentally a few months ago I was deaf in one ear for a week, which was interesting but not informative on what being totally deaf is like., is considerably less of a disability than being deaf; while often inconvenient or tedious, I did not face any situation where a pad of paper was insufficient. None-the-less I did face some minor disrespect from people who were unsure how to handle a mute person. When asking two staff at urgent care a question, they talked among themselves as if I weren’t there (e.g., “why don’t you ask [blah]” as if I couldn’t hear). On another occasion, a person I asked for help persisted in writing their responses at length on paper even though I had amply demonstrated I could hear; and they saw no potential issue with “call such-an-such” as a solution to my problem.

A key part of respecting another person as a peer is being able to communicate with them. This is something I noticed in my own behavior before I experienced being at the receiving end. Living in a large city, I am immersed in a constant background of thousands of people whose lives are wholly disconnected from my own. For someone to be elevated in my mind above the standing of yet-another chunk of flesh wearing colored fabrics to a person with their own individuality and unique personality requires communication, especially fluent communication. A person’s wit, charm, or spark is mediated primarily through language, and when you share no language with someone it takes conscious effort to remember that the most vibrant aspect of their personality is still there, just locked away from you out of sight.

On to lighter topics. Being mute was only a minor impediment to socialization. Groups of three or more were best, of course; I could let others talk, and only interject when warranted. Eventually people would learn there was no need to pause conversation when I began writing.

I expected two-person conversation to be awkward or stilted, but instead other people were more-than-capable of rambling enough to carry a conversation alone. The only difficulty was when people would ask a series of abstract questions whose responses would be much too hard to charade – I cannot express my opinion of some character’s motivations with hand gestures, nor will I write an essay on it longhand.

Speaking of which, after a few weeks of struggling to communicate through flailing of arms, I thought I could put my practice to good use with a game of charades for game night. Practice did not seem to have given me any advantage but it was very cathartic to see others face the same difficulties, with phrases like “golden ratio”, “Middle Dakota”, “charades”, and “four is prime”. We also had success with fine art charades, e.g. Mona Lisa, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Pieta, Liberty Leading the People, and The Scream.

7 weeks of silence did slowly wear on me. I gradually reintroduced words, and then longer phrases, spoken sotto voce as far as I could tolerate. I felt a tremendous relief two weeks ago when I had my first serious conversation in which I could express thoughts more complicated than base needs. It was less immediately visceral than my first whiff of scent after three months with no sense of smell9Am I plagued with problems with my senses? I’ve experienced transient partial blindness of one eye, which fortunately was reversed before it became permanent, and even had the tip of my tongue go numb for several months. I think touch is the only sense that has gone undamaged, except for one fingertip., but more fundamental, as if I were becoming a person again.

Hopefully this episode is behind me now. As yet I have to speak softly and in moderation; perhaps in a month or two I will be back to normal, though extremely reluctant to raise my voice. And throughout this whole experience I believe I learned an important lesson: ASL grammar is pretty cool.


  1. Any communication difficulties I had when living in England I will blame on the English.↩︎

  2. I wonder if Italian would be a little easier on the vocal cords than English; fortunately I did not favor Dutch as the Dutch ‘g’ would have been ruinous for me to try to say.↩︎

  3. I even developed a terrible headache from nodding / shaking too vigorously too often, which only went away after strictly keeping to the hand signs.↩︎

  4. My understanding is that hand positioning is quite important in ASL, but I knew few enough signs that I could be quite lax with no possibility of confusion. Do ASL users ever sign behind their back? It seems like it could be a very severe insult – a deaf person turning their back is an even more absolute rejection than a speaking person covering the ears.↩︎

  5. there may be errors, caveat lector↩︎

  6. Rhetorical questions, or the greeting “how are you”, also use raised brows as they are not really soliciting an open-ended response.↩︎

  7. I would be curious about the use of filler signs in ASL: in English speech can easily outpace thought, thus necessitating fillers. I assume they are less common in ASL?↩︎

  8. Coincidentally a few months ago I was deaf in one ear for a week, which was interesting but not informative on what being totally deaf is like.↩︎

  9. Am I plagued with problems with my senses? I’ve experienced transient partial blindness of one eye, which fortunately was reversed before it became permanent, and even had the tip of my tongue go numb for several months. I think touch is the only sense that has gone undamaged, except for one fingertip.↩︎

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