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Interpreting Lydia Callis
November 2, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Arika Okrent deconstructs the signing of interpreter Lydia Callis to demonstrate how body language and facial expressions are used grammatically in American Sign Language.

Callis received wide attention on twitter and tumblr for interpreting NYC Mayor Bloomberg's press conferences during Sandy. But her expressiveness was misunderstood by some, described by HuffPost as "mugging for the cameras and gesturing wildly" and ridiculed (yt) on E! by comedian Chelsea Handler.

The advocacy group Deaf Nation released a letter responding to Handler's routine. Activist and CODA Lilit Marcus pushed back as well against ignorance about sign language.
posted by torticat (61 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's a short Language Log post covering some of the same ground. The money quote in the blog post is taken from Oliver Sacks's Seeing Voices:

"Imagine the wonderful social scene in a crowded bar under X-ray cinematography, with tongues flying in all directions as a hundred different conversations proceed. What is happening as each speaker's tongue gyrates wildly, as the lips open and close, the velum rises and falls, the pharynx expands and contracts, and the jaw moves up and down? … In speech the articulators' "virtuosity" occurs in the vocal tract, where it is hidden from view. In sign it is out in the open–in "space"–where it can command the attention of those who are unaware of what goes on in speech."
posted by anaphoric at 11:15 AM on November 2, 2012


"mugging for the cameras"? *facepalm*

way to NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT IT IS SHE'S DOING.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:15 AM on November 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


Language Log weighs in.
posted by Jode at 11:16 AM on November 2, 2012


She signs beautifully and clearly while imparting important information. Mocking her is ridiculous and childish.
posted by kamikazegopher at 11:17 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hey The Daily Show made fun of her too.. except Chelsea Handler just sucks and has that "I'm actually too dumb to be doing this but they gave me a job so whatever" attitude. Fuck her. Lydia is GREAT!! And if Handler's moronic bit serves to highlight that ASL is as much about facial expression and body language as it is about the hand signs, then good.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:19 AM on November 2, 2012


Thanks so much for this post. I think the really crucial part is at the end of the Callis interview
In addition to all the attention online, Callis said she’s also been thrilled at the response from deaf New Yorkers grateful to finally have access to breaking news from the mayor.

“The city is catching up on what they should have been doing a long time ago," she said. "They’re providing accessibility for people that don’t necessarily have access to the information.”
I get that Handler was just doing ... comedy, but it came across as more of a sort of "Asian people talk like this..." which I don't usually see as Handler's thing. It's tough to make this sort of thing into good comedy without continuing to marginalize the already-marginalized and I'm not sure handler hit the mark.

The Sacks book is really worth a read if you're interested in Deaf culture. If you're one of those people who doesn't like Sacks you might also consider What's that Pig Outdoors by Henry Kisor.
posted by jessamyn at 11:21 AM on November 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


Wow, that clip from E! was horrible. I've seen a lot of sign language interpreters, though I'm no expert, and the expressions Bloomburg's interpreter was using didn't look especially dramatic to me.
posted by not that girl at 11:22 AM on November 2, 2012


This is the hearing version of making fun of languages one doesn't understand -- "ching chong" etc. Sucks..
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:23 AM on November 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


Or what jessamyn just said.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:24 AM on November 2, 2012


I remember watching her thinking exactly two things: "holy shit that looks strenuous as hell" and "the internet is going to be ridiculous about this."
posted by griphus at 11:24 AM on November 2, 2012


Great post.
posted by azarbayejani at 11:25 AM on November 2, 2012


Hey The Daily Show made fun of her too.

Not to nitpick, but that wasn't how I read that segment at all.

Yeah, they acknowledged her presence at the press conferences, and made fun of Bloomberg's Spanish (who hasn't made fun of that). But Jon went out of his way to call Callis awesome, and didn't mock her in any way that I can see. The bit later with Samantha Bee making jerk off motions behind Jon was making fun of Jon, not ASL or Callis.

Link to the relevant Daily Show segment for those that aren't country-blocked but haven't seen it. The whole theme of the segment was government people kicking ass (including Callis).
posted by sparkletone at 11:27 AM on November 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


Is there an interpreter available for those who are deaf and blind from having their heads stuck up their bums?

I occasionally attend extremely boring meetings in which the only bright spot is the ASL interpreter. I love the range of expression that each interpreter brings to the spoken content. Some are definitely more "expressive" than others. (I am not deaf, although sometimes you wouldn't know it.)
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:27 AM on November 2, 2012


I really admire and envy people who know ASL. It's an incredibly graceful, economical and expressive language.
posted by maudlin at 11:29 AM on November 2, 2012


I admire and envy ASL signers SO MUCH. It's an incredibly graceful, economical and expressive language.

I don't know if other festivals do this (but they totally should if they don't), but here in Chicago, Lollapalooza's had ASL interpreters at the main stages for all acts for at least the last two or three years. Frequently, they're as much or more fun to watch than whoever's performing.

They did a promo video about all the work that goes into it last year. It's really amazing.
posted by sparkletone at 11:34 AM on November 2, 2012


After reading Lilit Marcus' piece, I realized that I, too, have viewed ASL signers with "affectionate ignorance." And while I never would mock the language, I don't think I'm doing any better by thinking it looks beautiful and expressive.

Time to recalibrate!
posted by CancerMan at 11:34 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wonder if some of the descriptions of Callis as "passionate" or "animated" have a subconscious connection to her being Latina, because it's a prevelant stereotype of Latino/as.
posted by desjardins at 11:35 AM on November 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


As a deaf person who doesn't speak ASL, were the briefings closed-captioned? There are a lot of non-signing deaf folks out there who depend on captions.
posted by desjardins at 11:38 AM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


The people on my Twitter feed immediately fell in love with her and the work she was doing. There was a very clear line of "no mocking, just digging the awesomeness", and whenever someone crossed the line into mocking, their hands quickly got slapped. The internet is a funny place.
posted by dry white toast at 11:40 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who is the black lady doing signing who I've been seeing behind Bloomberg at some recent press conferences? She also seems great. Very animated and fun to watch, even if you don't read signs.

I haven't had a chance to read all the linked pieces--can someone explain why there are still signers when closed captioning is widely available.

Or, on preview, what Desjardins said.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:40 AM on November 2, 2012


One of my dear friends went to college in a city with a large ASL population, and had taken it as a language elective himself. As a result of the ASL-heavy population, even local bartenders had learned the most basic signs when it came to taking orders...so once, at a VERY LOUD and crowded bar, my friend just signed his order to the bartender instead, who immediately responded and brought him his drinks.

Neighboring jerkface: "Oh, fuck that guy, he served the deaf dude first!"
My friend: "No, maybe YOU'RE just an asshole."

I don't think anyone should make assumptions about ASL if they don't have the slightest idea about it. It's just rude. Lydia Callis does her job beautifully and well, and she doesn't need this nonsense.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:41 AM on November 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


Video of Callis in action. Brilliant.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:45 AM on November 2, 2012


Thanks for this post. I realized expressions were part of the language but it's nice to learn exactly how those facial expressions and body positions are part of the grammar.
posted by vespabelle at 11:46 AM on November 2, 2012


Also, "Arika Okrent" is a frikkin' euphonic name if ever i heard it. Sounds like a well-tuned steampunk device....

arika okrent-arika okrent-arika okrent-arika okrent-arika okrent
posted by lalochezia at 11:48 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I haven't had a chance to read all the linked pieces--can someone explain why there are still signers when closed captioning is widely available.

Closed captioning works on screens, but if there isn't a screen around and a deaf person who can't read lips is nearby, a signer comes in handy.
posted by Jpfed at 11:48 AM on November 2, 2012


-can someone explain why there are still signers when closed captioning is widely available.

Because many deaf children/adults are behind on reading skills. They can't hear their parents read to them, right? Also, the grammatical structure of ASL is very different than written English. I'm not a linguist or educator so I can't expand upon that much further, but you can't reach all deaf people by using only one or the other.
posted by desjardins at 11:50 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's things like this which made me feel really dumb in my attempt to learn ASL grammar:

Callis signs OPEN while leaning to the left and CLOSED while leaning to the right. This shift in body position marks a contrastive structure. If Bloomberg were to continue making distinctions between the "open" and "closed" possibilities, she would use those same positions to maintain coherence while interpreting those other distinctions.

The depth of grammar, pragmatics, and rhetoric that gets communicated through 3D spacial relationships, facial modifiers, speed, and angle is baffling to this native English speaker.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:50 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because many deaf children/adults are behind on reading skills. They can't hear their parents read to them, right?

Good point--I hadn't realized. Thanks!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:54 AM on November 2, 2012


Among the Deaf, Ubiquitous Sign Language Faces a Challenge: But some advocates for the deaf say that a fervent devotion to the exclusive use of sign language by many of the deaf has helped foster a little known and surprising problem: The average 18-year-old deaf American reads at a fourth-grade level.
posted by desjardins at 11:56 AM on November 2, 2012


can someone explain why there are still signers when closed captioning is widely available

Uh, because closed captioning often sucks? Even when it's done properly, like for a DVD, there are often obvious discrepancies such as homonyms, faux amis, and the like. When it's done on the fly, as for cable news, it usually runs significantly behind the speaker (thus also video, such as B-roll) and my gosh the perambulations you have to go through to figure out what the captions are actually supposed to mean.

(A relative is very hearing impaired, getting worse as she ages, and so I've seen a good deal of captioning lately. At its best it can be sufficient, but the median level of quality that I observe is far from that.)

I will say that Callis is a very expressive "speaker", in that many times the professional signers at formal events adopt a much stiffer overall posture (compared to, say, signers I have seen on the street). I don't know for certain but it may be that's what event organizers demand, as more gesticulation -- even if it conveys more information -- might be distracting to the non-ASL viewer, which is in a sense what we have here.
posted by dhartung at 12:08 PM on November 2, 2012


Video of Callis in action. Brilliant.

Yeah and I maybe should have mentioned there is video of a full 31 minute press conference in the third link of the post.

Thanks for the Language Log link, anaphoric and Jode! Worth reading in part because Okrent herself weighed in in the comments.
posted by torticat at 12:27 PM on November 2, 2012


Speaking of captioning, I turned it on recently to watch an episode of "Breaking Bad" because on first viewing I thought I had missed a key bit of dialogue, and I was appalled at the quality. Really, really poor. If it was for a press conference or something that was done live and on the fly, I could understand, but for a major tv show that was "in the can" for weeks, if not months? Shocking.

I don't know if AMC is responsible for that, or the production company.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:37 PM on November 2, 2012


I've been bemused by the reaction to Callis. She's just signing, although she does it well. My GF doesn't sign, and the few times she's seen me do it she's commented on how "loud" I seem versus my normal demeanor.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:45 PM on November 2, 2012


I think people are just not used to New Yorkers using a form of sign language that doesn't involve grabbing their crotch.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:51 PM on November 2, 2012


I think people are just not used to New Yorkers using a form of sign language that doesn't involve grabbing their crotch.

Or their middle fingers!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:55 PM on November 2, 2012


The depth of grammar, pragmatics, and rhetoric that gets communicated through 3D spacial relationships, facial modifiers, speed, and angle is baffling to this native English speaker.

It can be very hard to learn to do, as well. At least it was for me when I was studying ASL. A fluent ASL speaker can locate several people or places in space, and then use those places like "pronouns" to refer to the people and places as they continue telling their story. I could never keep them all straight. But I was not very good at it overall. It is a fascinating language to study and, like many other people, I find it beautiful to watch as well.
posted by not that girl at 1:40 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy shit, the Okrent article is fantastic.

I mean, pop writing on linguistics sets the bar pretty low. 99% of it is just stereotype-spouting or prescriptivist nonsense, or condescends to the reader by glossing over all of the details. So just by being clear, accurate and well-informed, she's already head and shoulders over the competition. But oh man, that is how you write a pop linguistics article. Go team!
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:56 PM on November 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think a good chunk of the reason for her suddenly popularity is the fact that she's really beautiful. I mean, I fully admit that it's male gaze for my part. We like seeing pretty people on TV, and when those pretty people are articulate and expressive in a highly emotional situation, all the better. Of course, I'm also a linguist, so any chance to watch ASL is really fun, and the Atlantic article is pure candy. But the other thing too.
posted by cthuljew at 2:00 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I got to wondering about this as I was watching a bit of Bloomberg's news conference: There is research that suggests that making a particular facial expression, or adopting a particular posture, can affect the emotions that you're feeling. Does a signer experience a series of rapidly changing emotions as they go through all those physical and facial expressions? Would signing a happy story be an effective remedy for depression, since you would be forced to put your face, hands and body through the literal motions of happiness?

Psychologically, it seems that signing would be quite a different experience than speaking, since signing seems to require that emotional content be acted out. It looks like an emotional whirlwind to me -- it looks like it would hard to stay in whatever emotional state you're in while putting your physical self through such a range of emotional representation. Is this so, or it just how it looks to someone who doesn't understand it?
posted by Corvid at 2:53 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


I will say that Callis is a very expressive "speaker", in that many times the professional signers at formal events adopt a much stiffer overall posture (compared to, say, signers I have seen on the street). I don't know for certain but it may be that's what event organizers demand, as more gesticulation -- even if it conveys more information -- might be distracting to the non-ASL viewer, which is in a sense what we have here.

A lot of professional interpreters learned ASL as adults. Callis is apparently a CODA and it sounds like she's a native ASL speaker. I suspect that makes a difference: I'm told that one feature of the "hearing accent" that adult ASL learners have is a tendency to keep their face and body too neutral and to leave out nonmanual markers (turns, leans, brow raises, mouthing, etc).
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:57 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


There were two sign language intepreters at the Neil Young & Crazy Horse show at the Hollywood Bowl a few weeks ago. We found them absolutely mesmerizing -- their interpretations of "Walk Like a Giant" and "The Needle and the Damage Done" in particular were revelatory in terms of demonstrating how extraordinarily performative and artistic the language can be. I was shocked and kind of sickened to realize at some point that the hippie dudes in front of us were making fun of them. So I would just like to take this opportunity to say: you suck, hippie dudes in Section P, and those ASL speakers rocked harder than you ever will.
posted by scody at 3:04 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Psychologically, it seems that signing would be quite a different experience than speaking, since signing seems to require that emotional content be acted out.

Not really. No more than in oral languages.

Here's an analogy that might help. In English, we sometimes make noises with our mouths to express emotion ("ack" "ow" "ah" "oooh"), and we sometimes make noises with our mouths to form words. And confusingly, the same noises can show up in both contexts. Like sometimes the "ow" sound is an expression of pain, and sometimes the "ow" sound is part of a word like "now" or "cow" or "brown."

Except in fact, for native English speakers, it isn't confusing. When someone says "How now, brown cow," we don't go "Oh shit, he said 'ow' four times in a row, he must be in agony." We recognize that those "ow"s were not emotional "ow"s but purely linguistic ones.

Same way with the eyebrow and head and mouth movements in ASL. Sometimes they do express emotion. Sometimes, they're just part of a word (or there to mark some sort of grammatical structure). Native ASL speakers can tell the difference pretty easily.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:13 PM on November 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


This thoughtful discussion has brought me this close to feeling bad about mocking that Jehovah's Witnesses anti-masturbation video.

this close!
posted by zippy at 4:06 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's not what 'deconstruct' means...though it probably doesn't mean anything...so I guess you can use it however you want.

You probably mean good old 'analyzes.'
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:04 PM on November 2, 2012


Previously on MetaFilter: Arika Okrent and her awesome book, In the Land of Invented Languages.
posted by escabeche at 7:11 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is research that suggests that making a particular facial expression, or adopting a particular posture, can affect the emotions that you're feeling. Does a signer experience a series of rapidly changing emotions

It doesn't even require the full facial expression. One such study found an effect on mood just from holding pencils in the mouth in different ways that activated part of the muscle set of frowning or smiling. But the same muscles are involved in articulating rounded vowels (like oo and oh) versus unrounded (like ee and ah). Does a speaker experience a series of rapidly changing emotions?

Well, maybe, but if it does I bet the effect is smaller than that of muscle tone signaling, and much smaller than that of, say, intestinal hormones.
posted by eritain at 7:45 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't get enough of this lady. She's like the Jimi Hendrix of ASL.

It's absolutely mesmerizing.
posted by Skygazer at 7:59 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, the grammatical structure of ASL is very different than written English.

ASL is an entirely different language and should not be considered any variation of spoken English. Its origins are French. There is also SEE, which is Signed Exact English, but it is not embraced by the Deaf Community and has a much shorter history than ASL.

Once upon a time, I majored in ASL in college but decided early on that the job of interpreter was not suited for me. I still love the language and professional interpreters, especially those like Callis.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:03 PM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Does a signer experience a series of rapidly changing emotions as they go through all those physical and facial expressions?

No more than anyone else speaking in any other language. Spoken language is just as emotive - many words in ASL can look dramatic because expression is conveyed through these gestures. They don't get exhausted speaking because of it. It's really just people talking.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:12 PM on November 2, 2012


their interpretations of "Walk Like a Giant" and "The Needle and the Damage Done" in particular were revelatory in terms of demonstrating how extraordinarily performative and artistic the language can be.

scody, if you haven't, you should look at ewitteborg's ASL song interpretations on youtube. Performative and artistic, yes.

ewitteborg (ewitty on tumblr) apparently also weighed in on the controversy about Lydia Callis (this is via the discussion at Language Log linked above).
posted by torticat at 8:13 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can I drop in a recommendation to watch Deaf Ninja? To my non-ASL-reading eyes, this is like the Ronin-era Frank Miller of cinematic storytelling.
posted by zippy at 12:00 AM on November 3, 2012


Thanks, nebulawindphone -- that explains a lot.

That's not what 'deconstruct' means...though it probably doesn't mean anything...so I guess you can use it however you want.

You probably mean good old 'analyzes.'


Comp. Lit. major here. That's very certainly what deconstruct means -- not just analyzing the content, but the social meaning of that content and the expression of that content.

It wasn't a formal deconstruction in the high po-mo mode, but it doesn't have to be. That's for a certain audience that is interested in what is probably best described as the meaning of meaning.
posted by dhartung at 12:26 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Someone more knowledgeable than me will correct me, but:

British (Australian, New Zealand) sign language is a different language from American Sign Language. American Sign Language derived from (1) French Sign Language. So American Sign is like French Sign. British Sign is a different language.

Sign languages are NOT simply visual representations of the dominant written/spoken language in the local culture. They are languages in their own right. This also helps explain the problems that users of American Sign Language have with English, which is a foreign language. Throw in problems with phonological skills (letter and letter-combination sounds) which are vital for writing in an alphabetic language, and you would expect problems with Deaf people using written English, no matter what. So closed captioning is not a panacea.

(1) Or "is related to" - I don't want to cause offence!
posted by alasdair at 2:43 AM on November 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


I hear music and inarticulate voices in white noise (and silence) quite a lot. We have a CD of ocean waves on continuous loop as a sleep aid for my partner, for example, and she'll sometimes be listening to classical music on her bedside radio with the lights out as well for a few minutes before we drop off, and I'll reliably hear the music continue for 10-20 seconds after she turns it off despite occasionally hearing the click, though I always know when it's off because the music is suddenly just terrible.

I've often wondered whether deaf people fluent in ASL experience a welter of ambient gibberish as they walk through crowds on a busy sidewalk.
posted by jamjam at 9:33 AM on November 3, 2012


In spite of being used in geographic proximity, sign languages and spoken languages are often radically different from each other in grammar and structure. There are signing systems that attempt to translate some of English grammar visually, but they tend to be classed as pidgins.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:09 AM on November 3, 2012


I just want to comment that this excellent, informative article and its reception:

(a) Shows that people really do want substantive information about language, and not just pop fluff.

(b) Shows what kind of improvement you can get when you ask someone who has linguistic training and experience writing to a lay audience to write articles about language.

More please, journalism.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:20 AM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


ASL's 3D rendering is superb. I mean really, if I ever have to conceive of spatial orientation to tell a story, even on paper, I'm going ask an ASL person to sign it out and describe it.

And now, you can too...


(Gimme some credit if you do this though you jive turkey's...)
posted by Skygazer at 4:33 PM on November 3, 2012


Or "is related to" - I don't want to cause offence!

Your caution is warranted. A big part of what became ASL came from the large Deaf population of Martha's Vineyard, which had formed their own language (that was, at its height, a second language for much of the hearing population there as well.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:31 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I must admit, when I read Marcus's post earlier, this part rubbed me the wrong way:
I’ve always heard that sign language is “so beautiful,” but it’s an empty, meaningless compliment. To me, that means “I don’t care about sign language as a language, I just want it to amuse and entertain me.” It means “I’m making no attempt to understand what’s going on here, but it sure looks cool.”
When I read that, one of my thoughts (as a hearing person) was "but I think Italian is beautiful even though I don't know any Italian." And at this point, having spent many years taking various levels of French lessons, starting at age 10 (including, finally, when I was a college sophomore, a semester on phonetics that seemed to unlock everything in a "why did none of my teachers mention this before now, damn you all?!" kind of way), despite understanding it reasonably well, I don't consider French "beautiful". I don't understand ASL, but think this ASL interpretation of Marilyn Manson's "This is the New Shit" is great, and even though I don't understand what's being communicated, I do recognize and get, even in a less-direct and more distant way that somebody who knows ASL, that there's extra levels of meaning that are added.

I recognize that some people are just ignorant and hateful, but isn't there a middle ground between "at least conversationally fluent" and "should just keep one's mouth shut"?
posted by Lexica at 9:43 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


SNL did an opening sketch (US-only, I think, sorry) managing (I think) to make fun of Bloomberg/Christie and their respective interpreters without, I think, denigrating their mad skillz.
posted by jessamyn at 11:11 AM on November 4, 2012


Incredibly Lydia Callis is now following me on Twitter. Oh man.

I am so not worthy...
posted by Skygazer at 3:56 AM on November 23, 2012


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