The University of California Press has come out with a book (and accompanying DVD) that analyzes ASL storytelling, poetry, and drama: Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature).
paperback (978-0-520-22976-1): 29.95, £18.95
hardcover (978-0-520-22975-4): $65.00, £41.95
E-book without DVD (1601295251): $15.95
Amazon.com with the table of contents, index, and first six pages of the introduction
ASL storytelling is fun to watch, probably even if you don’t know the language. The signs can get exaggerated, and there’s a lot of non-sign gesturing/mime thrown in.
ASL poetry can be quite beautiful. Sometimes the poems “rhyme” by using signs with the same handshape or signs with the same movement. Also, a lot of signs are normally made with only one hand (right for right-handers), but poets might alternate series of signs between the left and right hands to create a visual balance and flow.
ASL drama is like spoken-language drama except that the signing is bigger not louder (and only the vocal interpreters need microphones) and the stage “blocking” of actors’ movements always involves the audience being able to see their signing. The actors can’t utter lines of dialog with their backs to the audience unless they move their arms unnaturally far out to the sides.
Here’s something that may blow your mind:
With sign languages, the medium is the message, sort of (to hedge on a line from Marshall McLuhan). Actually, the articulation is the signal.
With spoken languages, you decode the message from the signal—sounds produced by air moving past or blocked during speakers’ articulation of their mostly hidden speech organs (tongue, vocal folds, etc.). With signing, you also decode the message from the signal, but the signal IS the signers’ articulation of hands and face that you are seeing. It’s as if a speaker used no air and you just watched the tongue move around to receive a message (not recommended, especially with strangers).
That’s also why Deaf babies of Deaf parents sign earlier than Hearing babies of Hearing parents speak, and why Hearing babies of Deaf parents sign earlier than they speak. Their hands are visible to them and easier to coordinate than the hidden, intricate speech organs. However, signing isn’t so easy when you learn it later. Just as with spoken languages, your signing can have an accent if you learn it later in life. It’s hard to get the smooth movements of native signers. Plus, the grammar can be very different from English, such as verbs like GIVE that move from abstract third-person subject to abstract third-person object.