Books: Alphabetic gloves, edible vowels and other artificial speech devices

I See a Voice: A Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses

by Jonathan Ree HarperCollins pounds 19.99

W hich is worse, deafness or blindness? Like many other children, the young Jonathan Ree would often return to this conundrum. He came down on the same side every time. Surely the blind are worse off. They cannot see faces, or trees, or pavements, whereas the deaf have lost nothing but sounds, evanescent will-o'-the-wisps of doubtful reality.

Though Ree begins his book with this childhood conclusion, it becomes clear, as he progresses, that the truth is far less clear-cut. Blindness is of course a harsh affliction. But the blind can at least hear voices, and so participate in the discourse by which humans share their lives. If you become deaf, then you lose conversation, and must struggle not to be shut into a lonely cell of self. Even worse, if you are born deaf, then you may lack not just conversation, but understanding itself.

The main body of this fine book is a "philosophical history" of deaf education. Through most of human history, Ree explains, the deaf-born grew up without language, and so were fated to a sad life of intellectual stagnation. Deafness meant dumbness, both orally and intellectually. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the vocal apparatus of the deaf. It is just very hard to learn to speak a language if you can't hear it.

Ree's history begins with the first heroic attempts to overcome this barrier. From the 16th century onwards, dedicated educators tried all manner of devices. Most hoped eventually to teach their charges to speak, but they had different ideas about how to do this. Some tried alphabetic gloves, others artificial speech machines, while Samuel Heinicke of Leipzig invented an ingenious system for associating vowels with tastes.

With hindsight, we know that all these contortions were misplaced. As it happens, the deaf have a natural affinity for language, even if not for the languages of the hearing. Any community of deaf people will spontaneously develop a system of signing which owes nothing to spoken languages. There had been inklings of this through history. Plato talks of the "signs" of the "deaf and dumb", and in the 17th century the Sultan of the Turks kept a retinue of mutes, unable to betray court secrets, yet capable of communication with each other by "a kind of Speech shadowed out by gestures".

By the end of the 18th century, deaf schools had formed in France and Britain, and inevitably the pupils took to signing. Deaf teachers now had a key to unlock their students' minds, but not all were happy to use it. Some felt that signing would block the deaf from the eventual goal of speech. It was a hard choice. Should the deaf's natural affinity with signing be co-opted into their education, with the attendant risk of estranging them from the larger community of speakers? Or should it be speech at all costs, even if this meant that many fell at the first hurdle? Fortunately for most of the deaf themselves, this fearful choice was no choice at all, since they automatically picked up signing whenever they had the chance.

The story of this painful and angry debate has been told before, but it is good to have Ree tell it again. He delivers a wealth of historical detail, filled with telling incident and curious anecdote. Even more importantly, he is able to steer his way through the treacherous waters of linguistic theory. By training Ree is a professional philosopher, and he lays bare a number of misconceptions that have blighted attitudes to sign language. Most damaging has been the assumption that signing works pictorially, like some childish system of charades. Ree elegantly demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth. By appealing to the elements of phonetic science as laid down by Ferdinand de Saussure at the turn of this century, he shows how signing is a proper language in just the same sense as speech.

Ree's history of the deaf is flanked by two shorter sections, which dissect the ways in which ordinary people and philosophers think about the "five senses". Overall, Ree intends this book as a contribution to a new style of philosophy, one which views things as phenomena, as items which are "weighed down by history, saturated with memories, fears and desires ... a hubbub of conflicting interpretations". Science may deliver one kind of truth, Ree allows, but the true importance of things can only be grasped by deciphering this historical palimpsest.

At one level, this book is an unquestionable triumph. Ree writes beautifully, and orchestrates a scarcely credible range of historical, philosophical and literary references into a narrative that fairly jumps off the page. His conception of philosophy, though, raises questions. In a way his own "philosophical history of deafness" counts against his philosophical programme, and in favour of the claims of science. After all, as Ree tells the story, the virtues of deaf sign languages were largely ignored until Saussurian science corrected the prejudices of history.

But this is rather too quick, for it forgets that the human use of scientific knowledge must always itself depend on some larger framework of ideas, a framework with no authority but the questionable commendation of history. Ree is right to urge a constant interrogation of the past in the interest of finding the right way forward. Indeed the case of Saussure himself makes the point. Despite his insights, Saussure remained a victim of the historical prejudices that his own theories undermined, and was never able to appreciate the essential unity of signed and spoken languages.

Even so, some readers may wish that Ree had offered more science. He is so good on the significance of modern phonetics that it seems odd that he ignores other scientific questions. He says little about the grammatical comparisons between deaf and spoken languages, or about the biological imperatives that drive the deaf towards signing when speech is unavailable. Saussure is treated at some length, but Noam Chomsky appears only in a couple of footnotes, and Charles Darwin not at all.

But this is carping. Grammar and biology are only two of the many topics where Ree will leave his readers asking for more. I was also disappointed he did not spend longer on Chinese ideography, or on the sign language of Native Americans, or on the hearing children of deaf parents, or on many other issues I resolved to pursue further. It is a virtue of this philosophical history that every layer it removes turns out to uncover even more interesting layers below.