LAST NIGHT

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The science of language is a frustrating discipline in which most of the big experiments are morally unacceptable. If you want to determine whether grammar is hard-wired into the human brain, for example, it would indisputably be useful to isolate a group of children and see what they produce without any adult example to guide them. Would they develop a genuine language, complete with rules of inflection and tense, as Noam Chomsky has theorised, or a much cruder form of communication? Naturally, it would be monstrous to do such an experiment, but fortunately, for linguists if nobody else, the world has no scruples. In Nicaragua after the revolution, for example, deaf children found themselves effectively without any form of communication, marooned without instruction and with only each other for company. "This situation is a linguist's dream," said the linguist Judy Kegl about this distressing experience. "It's like being at the Big Bang."

Judith Bunting's film for Horizon (BBC2) made it clear that Kegl wasn't unfeeling, just excited. In the Nicaraguan deaf schools, they had found near perfect experimental conditions and the findings appeared to bear out the idea that language isn't a skill you learn (like reading) but one you naturally develop (like walking). The first post-war generation of deaf children were taught lip-reading by East German teachers, an enterprise that failed miserably. But in the playgrounds, the children were evolving their own language, cobbled together from private sign languages they had used at home. This was effectively a pidgin, the kind of linguistic mongrel that results from the collision of different languages, but the really pertinent fact was that the next generation of children automatically converted this pidgin into a true creole, that is a language with a set of understood syntactical rules. They didn't just string signs together in a haphazard way - they added inflection and cases to them with a fluency that appeared to have emerged from nowhere.

You had to take this on trust, to be honest. For, to the untutored eye, it was virtually impossible to tell the difference between gestural articulacy and the cruder form of signing and, more than once, you longed for slow- motion and a detailed accompanying translation, so that you could grasp the subtleties that had been incorporated into these speaking movements. Those sceptical about Chomsky's theories might also have had some quibbles about the purity of this "experiment" - for, though the children lacked any instructive input, they were drenched in evidence that complex communication was at least possible. So, even if the Nicaraguan experience provided pretty conclusive proof that there is an innate capacity for language, it didn't entirely resolve how it comes to be deployed. It may be that the infant brain is created combustible but that it still requires some kind of mentor to pass on the flame of language.

It would be interesting to know whether sign language includes the possibility of innuendo - that communicative dislocation which is so indispensable to the comedian. Indispensable to Dame Edna Everage, anyway, whose act would be considerably slimmer without its sly assistance. "Couldn't you bury your face into me tonight," she exclaimed, appearing in front of an audience of factory workers wearing a dress decorated with a canteen dinner. The location for Dame Edna's Work Experience (BBC1) struck me as a good idea at first, a refreshing break from the slightly tired conceit of the studio show, with all those celebrity guests lining up for their endorsing humiliations. You hoped for something a little more spontaneous, but unfortunately it is only the surroundings that have changed - industrial plant is not only a description of the venue (a bean factory in Wigan), but will also serve for the ponderous artificiality of the audience questions, edited in with a clumsiness which implied awkward gaps in the original performance. The genius shone out a couple of times - in a fastidious account of a visit to her estranged daughter and in the silky insults - but it's time to take more risks.

Comments