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Politeness and Venezuelan Sign Language Lourdes Pietrosemoli The general capacity to be bound by moral rules may well belong to the individual, but the particular set of rules which transforms him into a human being derives from requirements established in the ritual organization of social encounters. —Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior Linguistic research done in the last 30 years has produced a reevaluation of signed languages. The linguistic discovery that signed languages are not defective copies of oral languages but, quite to the contrary, are complex linguistic systems that have evolved within the communities of deaf people has posed new problems for the researcher and the language educator. At the same time, the validation of signed languages has had a profound effect on the deaf communities. A new consciousness and a new attitude toward the self and toward the world have been growing within these communities. Some countries such as Venezuela have taken big steps in their policies about deaf education. In 1988, bilingualism in deaf education was declared as the official policy of the Ministry of Education (compare Sánchez 1990). This policy states that deaf people have the right to be instructed in the signed language that is used in most deaf communities of the country: Venezuelan Sign Language (LSV). Venezuela’s policy has generated new problems and numerous advantages. The fact that more people are now using LSV has produced a new encounter between deaf and hearing people, this time on deaf people’s ground. However, the new contacts between the communities, far from alleviating communication problems, generated new ones. Hearing people often complain about the impoliteness, rudeness, or naivete of deaf people whereas Deaf people protest the excessive touchiness and lack of understanding on the side of hearing people. It is not difficult to perceive that these negative encounters are, in essence, cultural and must have a manifestation in the linguistic system. 163 10 (163-179) Chapter 10 5/21/01 3:50 PM Page 163 The purpose in this chapter is to examine some facts about the use of signed language by deaf and hearing people within the theoretical framework presented by Brown and Levinson in their 1987 work, “Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use.” Their concepts of “face,” “face threatening acts,” “positive politeness,” and “negative politeness” as well as their schema of how these concepts are put into action in human societies enlighten our understanding of the nature of the social exchange that is produced when two diverse cultures such as the ones under consideration are put into contact. SIGNED LANGUAGES, LSV, AND DEAF CULTURE We can briefly define signed languages as a subset of natural languages that uses sight to receive the linguistic signal and the body-especially hands and face-to transmit it. We can also say that the processing of signed languages in the human brain is grosso modo similar to that of the oral languages ; that is, signed languages are processed in association with the left hemisphere (although an interesting difference is that, in signed languages, the visual areas of the brain also are involved in the processing of linguistic signals). Signed languages, contrary to popular belief, do not follow universal systems. Although signed languages have developed in association with the oral cultures in which they are immersed, they have evolved independently and have maintained the cultural features that they have developed as a result of being both “visual systems” and the language of a minority in a dominant oral culture. The minimal units of signed languages are the equivalent of phonemes in oral languages. These phonemes are grouped in morphemes, which in turn, combine to form sentences. One of the most important cultural traditions in some signed languages is storytelling, which is a form of art developed as a means of transmitting the traditions and beliefs of the culture and as a way to maintain the bonds among the members of a community that has been always oppressed and segregated. Many western signed languages constitute a family that evolved from French Sign Language approximately 200 years ago. However, signed languages did exist before this date. The oldest reference to a western signed language is found in Cratylo, Plato’s famous dialogue about language (Pietrosemoli 1989). Most likely, signed languages are as old as deafness. Venezuelan Sign Language is the main linguistic system used by deaf people as a means of communication in the principal deaf communities of the country. The Venezuelan deaf community was...


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