In terms of deafness, modernity differs from antiquity in two fundamental ways. First, technology has advanced beyond recognition, notably hearing aids and cochlear implants. Second, Deaf people in most modern societies have developed a standardised sign language. While gestures were used by the voiceless in antiquity (e.g. Plato Cratylus 422e), there could not have been enough deaf people in one place to have produced a sign language.
Some believe, therefore, that classicists should not be interested in sign language. However, an understanding of the syntax and grammar of modern sign language can bring fresh insights into areas such as oratory, drama/pantomime and classical art. For example, the grammatical form of ‘role shift’ in sign language may shed light on how Roman pantomime communicated voicelessly. In role shift, the signer becomes the various characters depicted in the narrative, shifting slightly in posture, facial expression and eye gaze in order to signal these switches (masks were used in Roman pantomime, but the other elements were probably conveyed in a comparable manner).
Modern Deaf pride and culture flip the status of ‘hearing loss’ to ‘deafness gained’. Sign language sweeps gestures, eye contact and gaze, facial expressions and all kinds of visual signalling into a coherent syntax, giving insights into good communication. A sound understanding of the Deaf body and sign language will enhance approaches to classical body language.
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