The linguistic universe of Latin was ‘a large solid space under a solid but elastic dome (the norm)’ (Varvaro 1991). The norm held all linguistic variation in check, so speakers felt that their language was homogeneous. When a distinction appeared out of the blue (Alcuin of York) between Latin and the language they were speaking, the consciousness of belonging to a whole shattered and the dome vanished. Everyone acquired a new local identity.

In this case the dome had the function of naming: of gathering everything under its umbrella into a noun. It didn’t directly touch the language that it contained, but exerted pressure on the way it was perceived. All the unnoticed variants were exerting pressure on the inside of the dome but it wasn’t sufficient to rupture its skin without extra-linguistic forces (namely Emperor Charlemagne who liked clarity of diction). The skin disintegrated once it had been breeched, and language flowed through in both directions: varieties that had been called Latin no longer aspired towards it, and varieties previously excluded from the Latin dome would presumably have crept towards the newly liberated vernaculars and found some integration. The point is that everything was on the edge. Every speaker considered themselves to be speaking Latin and approximately was, and then every single speaker realized Latin was somewhere else, and what they were speaking must approximate something else. Better! It didn’t approximate anything – it wasn’t nearly like anything – there was nothing left for it to be nearly like. Overnight every peculiarity of speech became legitimized. Each variety became itself (…Blanchot, Two Versions of the Imaginary).

This is getting somewhere. How does it relate to sign language deixis and onomatopoeia? Onomatopoeia first. Here’s a paragraph I wrote a couple of years ago as part of something else:

I watched a sign language interpreter at a recent seminar as she translated the proceedings for a student. At one point a (hearing) speaker was having trouble thinking of a word or a turn of phrase and moved his open palms in hurried circles in an effort to articulate his meaning. The interpreter, sitting between myself and the speaker, made just the same gestures for the deaf student to follow. Whether or not the interpreter’s gesture was a conventional sign or a kind of ad hoc ‘onomatopoeic’ construction, it seemed to have a different status from the original spontaneous gesture. While physically identical to the non-linguistic movement, in the context of sign language the gesture was not acting directly upon the room full of people in the same way as the desperate waving of the tongue-tied speaker. It struck me that non-linguistic gestures and sounds sit in rooms like things do, and in a way that language does not.

There’s nothing physically to differentiate the two gestures, only one of them is inside the language-bubble and the other one is in the room. I won’t go so far as to say that the dome has the function of naming, but there is a correspondence. The deixis illustration expands it:

It stands to reason, then, that a deaf child who learns sign language in infancy would get confused when she points to things in rooms, in a way that a hearing child never would. From time to time she will mistakenly point to the person she is addressing when she means to refer to herself. In the context of sign-language, pointing does not get out and act upon the room as it does in the context of speech. As a non-signer, when I supplement my spoken language with gesture, my actions really are in the world, they can reach things, point to things, or wave in desperation. The signing child’s pointing, on the other hand, is not part of the room but part of the language, and so there is no way of assuming a direct correspondence between the real world location of the point and the meaning of the point. Pointing in sign language is one of a class of deictic signs which correlate with English words like “you”, “there” or “now”. These spoken words are no more ‘in the world’ than their signed counterparts, and sure enough they too are confused by hearing children in the early stages of language acquisition

The example of deixis demonstrates that the visual-gestural mode of language and the audio-aural mode do not in fact differ in the way they relate word to world. The encounters I have explored are just that: encounters, significant in the manner of their apprehension. By virtue of their physical phonology, some classes of signs, like pointing and ‘onomatopoeia’, offer a temporary thinning in the tissue binding and dividing language on one side from world/room/thing on the other. In these instances the skin of sign language – the gesture itself – seems in some way to occupy a space both within and outside of language. Given the parity of sign language to spoken language, I believe the same can be said of sound, the skin of speech. But we are not there yet: first we must find a point of entry, a tear in the fabric that will allow us to enter speech just as we have entered the sign.

(I go on to talk about Barthes and the Rustle of Language, of which I am less fond lately.) Anyway. Rather than just retelling the Latin Dome story with different actors, these paragraphs conclude elsewhere. But the departure comes late and correspondences linger in a way that I like.

They conclude more closely to the edge text in my Afterward, which will need lots more work to make it fit together. That can start tomorrow.

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