‘Seeing voices’: according to Sacks, nothing is impossible for the deaf

Oliver Sacks tries to convince the deaf that nothing is impossible in his book “Seeing Voices”. According to him, sign language is a complete language in which everything is possible. Flirting, doing the math, or declaring love. Clear and communicative, but also poetic and subtle. A positivist but impressive message. A brief description of Sacks’ thinking about deaf language. Sack’s book is the result of the personal amazement that he wants to share with the general reader and with deaf people and their families. A visit to the deaf university Gallaudet College (New York) brought him face to face with the facts: deaf people have their own culture and language. How is that possible and what does that mean? Sack’s writing style is not very smooth, but that hurdle is quickly overcome once one is absorbed by the compelling account of Sack’s in-depth search for the meaning of language and language development in the deaf.

Source: Front of book

Introduction to the deaf world

Step by step, Sacks takes the reader through his book and introduces them to the deaf world. Someone who has been deaf from birth does not experience silence. Sound has never been heard, Sacks calls it a modality that does not exist for them. This creates a problem: not being able to hear means not having access to the spoken language. And no access to language means no access to knowledge: the cause of many problems.

It is impossible to think without language

Language is indispensable for personal and cultural identity. It is known from the past how strongly disturbed emotional and social development is reported in deaf people. Oliver Sacks uses a large part of the book to further explore the fascinating connection between language and development. Language is indispensable, it is the means to make the leap from perception to thinking. With the language given to us by our parents, we take the step to give a conceptual meaning to the things we observe. Language forms abstract symbols in the mind, allowing the world to be systematized. From all-encompassing perception to systematized abstraction. Only when abstract symbols can be understood and used can people talk to themselves. Before 1750, someone who knew no language was seen as an imbecile. ,A person without language is not mindless or retarded, but he is very limited in his thinking, locked up, in fact, in a mini world,, says Sacks. This describes the deepest core of the problem that affects deaf people: the impossibility of thinking if one does not know language.

Language for the deaf

Language is crucial, but can deaf people have a language? Sacks describes the history of the search for an answer to this question. He draws important messages from history about the use of (sign) language. After 1750 there was an open dispute about this, it was the time when Rousseau dreamed of a language of the heart in which everything would be crystal clear. As a side track, Sacks also puts the reader to work by challenging them to personal reflection. After all, he writes, the enormous freedom of expression in today’s spoken language is also an illusion. People remain subject to extremely strict grammatical restrictions. Then sign language comes into the picture. The turbulent history is explained in detail. Two prominent figures were lEpee and Gallaudet. LEpee was an oralist, someone who tried to derive a sign language from spoken language. Opposite him was Gallaudet, someone who believed that sign language had its own insight. The further history is quite predictable, but Sacks describes it fascinatingly by emphasizing the dramatic effects of often small decisions.

Source: Everyone’s idle, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-2.0)

Essence of language

As the historical description of the awareness of the uniqueness of sign language (Gallaudet’s line) continues, Sacks’ interest in the how and what of language grows. How is it possible that children, in an astonishing way, make the space they perceive linguistic? A successful attempt is made to explain these types of questions from neurology: it turns out that the nervous system has a very high adaptive capacity. It is clear that the writer himself is a doctor and specialist in the field of neurology. He carefully discusses many brain details and elaborates these concepts practically. For example, sign language consists of four dimensions, in contrast to one-dimensional spoken language. Ultimately, the writer argues that sign language is much more concrete and personal than spoken language.

Intriguing sign language

Language turns out to be the key to the world, the language of gestures unlocks a whole new world. Its own language, consisting of signs, creates a unique and distinctive culture. A culture in which actors perform in sign language, poetry takes on a completely different character, and with an orator who has the audience hanging on their hands! This book proves that Oliver Sacks is a master at making his readers think. The reader is forced to consider the phenomenon of language. Subconsciously thoughts turn to one’s own use of language: do I indeed think in words? Can I also think in other abstractions, for example in gestures?


Sacks appeals to the reader’s empathy throughout the book. The ending is the climax, a true plea. Deafness is not a deficiency that needs to be treated, it only asks for acceptance, for its own status. Deaf people themselves believe in their language and work hard for emancipation. It is up to the public to determine the future. Oliver Sacks wishes the reader would be smart enough to banish the word deaf and dumb forever. After all, it is not deaf and dumb, but deaf smart.

NB. Sacks’ book contains many theoretical passages, enormous footnotes sometimes taking up two-thirds of the page. The author makes every effort to justify himself scientifically in this popularly written book. Some readers will be annoyed by this. The footnotes distract from the storyline, and sometimes have the tendency to fall into a parallel story.

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