The Language of Hands

Thank you, Lucian. For all of this. I’ll never forget it. She signs quickly, fingers flying so quickly I almost miss them.
It was nothing, my Lady. I sign back, guarding myself against the cool relief that washes through me. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be heard. Really heard and seen. But it’s dangerous here. Why would she dare risk it?
-- OUTSPOKEN, Book One, Chapter 15

Overview


The Language of Hands is a form of sign language native to The Kingdom of Éirigh. It was developed by monks from The Kingdom of Coimeádach sometime around the year 1435 by request of King Slánaitheoir IV for his wife, who was born Deaf. Due to its roots in nobility, it is seen as a language for the upper classes, but there are a few known exceptions. The most notable speakers in Book One of OUTSPOKEN include Lady Sinè Sadach, Lucian "Deordhan" Cathasach, Sir Lorcan Dorchadas, and Prince Finnlay Slánaitheoir.

In the story of OUTSPOKEN, the Language of Hands plays a conflicting part in the narrative as both a blessing and a curse. The books are told from the perspective of Lucian "Deordhan" Cathasach, a Deordhan without a voice. Through an ill-fated friendship with Sir Lorcan Dorchadas, he was taught the Language of Hands. But, as an illiterate Bond Servant, it does him very little good in communicating with those closest to him. Throughout the series, Lucian struggles to speak up with so few that can understand his voice and even fewer willing to listen.

 
“Are you okay?” Lorcan gasps, and my heart beats faster. Lie. You have to lie. If you tell him the truth it’ll all come crashing down.
I’m fine. Just took a wallop from one of the yearlings, earlier. Every sign feels foreign in my hands, and yet somehow, I find it calming. I miss this. I shouldn’t let myself miss this. But I do.
“Don’ scare me like that, I thought you was hurt!” Lorcan’s face looks sincerely concerned, and my breath catches, eyes stinging. “You can’t leave me, Lucian. Not ever. You and Sinè are all I’ve got.” A single tear falls down Lorcan’s cheek, and I take a long, deep, grounding breath.
I won’t leave you. I’ll stay here until you fall asleep. The words my hands relay leave a bitterness in my mouth...
--OUTSPOKEN, Book One, Chapter 12

History and Development


While pidgins and house sign have existed for as long as anyone can remember, the Language of Hands was not created as a full, formal, recognized language until around the year 1435. At this time, King Slánaitheoir IV married a Deaf woman from the lower classes, who became his Queen. Worried that she would be looked down upon by nobility or foreign ambassadors, he sought for a way to help her. Eventually, it was learned that a monastery in the western parts of The Kingdom of Coimeádach was home to a number of monks living under a pledge of silence, who had created a partial sign language. He commissioned them to develop a full language and teach it to the Queen, her handmaidens, and a handful of scholars. These scholars were available to share their knowledge, and the language gradually spread through the Noble classes.

Because the Language of Hands was created for the Queen, it is broadly considered a secret language of nobility, and therefore is not accessible to the lower classes in most cases. After The First Great Dynastic Shift, the number of known speakers dropped significantly, but there are still a few pockets of knowledge, primarily within the lands of Laird Breith Sadach and the Woods of Escaine.

 

Informal Variations


Just because the Language of Hands is meant for the nobility doesn't mean that there are not others that would benefit from it, of course. Because it is not accessible to the lower classes, many that are Deaf or mute have had to create their own versions of sign language. These variations are typically hyper specific to either a settlement or even a single family, but can typically be well understood by those that have been around it long enough. There are no formally recognized variations, and these variations typically have little crossover with one another. For example, Lucian "Deordhan" Cathasach developed signs to communicate with Caillte Dochtuir, but had to learn the Language of Hands from Sir Lorcan Dorchadas in order to use or understand it.

Geographical Distribution


Most commonly used in The King's Lands, The Royal City, and the Woods of Escaine, as well as in the castle of Laird Breith Sadach. A handful of skilled speakers, who helped develop the language, live in The Kingdom of Coimeádach. The language is typically only known by nobility, and not widely shared, but there are exceptions (See: Lucian "Deordhan" Cathasach).

Due to the limited accessibility of the Language of Hands, pidgins and house sign variations are very common among the lower classes. While these variations may have some crossover with the Language of Hands, they are vastly different, and it would be difficult for a speaker of the Language of Hands to understand someone speaking with a local variation or vice versa.

Phonology


The Language of Hands is made up of a number of components, or parameters, which distinguish meaning in much the same way as a phoneme might in a spoken language. These parameters include hand shape, movement, palm orientation, location, and non-manual markers.

Hand shape refers to the specific shape you hold one or both hands in for a sign. Movement is used to describe any motion that is involved in a sign, such as moving the hand shape in a circle. Palm orientation indicates the direction the speaker's palm is facing. Location is where the sign is typically made in relation to the speaker's body -- for example, one sign might be made at the speaker's temple, while another may be made at their chin. Finally, non-manual markers refer to the inclusion of other forms of body language, such as expressions or body postures. Adjustments in any one of these parameters can give a sign a different meaning.

Morphology


There is a vast variety of ways that a single sign might be changed to show how it relates to the rest of the sentence or phrase, which typically involve varying the movement or non-manual markers. These adjustments can provide verbal inflection and classifiers to a statement.

Syntax


There is no set word order in the Language of Hands, as there is such variety in how to convey meaning in a physical space despite the lack of auxiliaries and tenses. However, in formal settings, it is common to mimic English sentence structures for clarity with those that may not be skilled with the language.

Fun Fact

While Maybe began writing OUTSPOKEN years earlier, they gained a new appreciation for and understanding of ASL in college. They originally learned the basics of ASL when they entered the world of theatre, as a way to communicate to crew members backstage during performances.

Shortly after, they began experiencing intermittent hearing problems, as well as difficulty speaking due to multiple physical and mental health struggles. Knowledge of ASL became a lifeline to them while they worked to figure out where these problems were coming from, and they have incorporated this experience (as well as their experiences advocating for disabled and neurodivergent folx of all kinds) into the telling of OUTSPOKEN.


Cover image: by Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Comments

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13 Dec, 2020 10:24

Nice article! I like the details, especially the phonology as I can clearly picture what it could look like and the way you describe the language in the prose, it gives it a lot of character even though it isn't spoken out loud :)

13 Dec, 2020 21:16

Thank you! That's lovely to hear.

Sage Rynn19
Wendy Vlemings (Rynn19)
14 Dec, 2020 15:51

I absolutely love this article. Very well written, and it also made me realize that I don't really consider what things might exist in my world for people who are deaf, blind, etc. I need to change that!

14 Dec, 2020 18:54

Thank you so much, on both accounts! ^_^

15 Dec, 2020 19:59

This was an interesting and informative read. The quotes are a nice touch. I always enjoy worlds that include good articles dealing with diverse things and groups of people others may look over / not include in their world building.

15 Dec, 2020 20:03

Thank you, Dapper!

Sage Dylonishere123
R. Dylon Elder
16 Dec, 2020 04:28

As someone who had to learn a bit of sign language in his home, i love this . I feel languages like this are sadly vacant from a lot of world building. Well done. I also love how the common folk kind of crafted their own version of it!

16 Dec, 2020 04:52

Thank you! I'm really passionate about inclusion and representation, as I deal with a number of "invisible" disabilities myself. I'm so glad you enjoyed it ^_^

9 Jan, 2021 02:07

I really like the idea of a form of ASL in a fantasy setting, and characters who are Deaf or Mute. Representation is something I am also passionate about. By the description, this sounds a lot like ASL. Is it ASL adapted to the setting, or does it have its own morphology and syntax?   I have one small critique, and that is the dipping of the language of this article in and out of world. I appreciate the box in the sidebar to provide context; I'm talking about the dipping in and out of world in the body of the article itself. I find it spoils the immersion a little. May I suggest that you include those sorts of commentaries, such as "The most notable speakers in Book One of OUTSPOKEN include..." as aloud boxes, rather than part of the body of the text?   Thank you for writing #ownvoices stories!

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga Eater of pickles, Friend of nerds, First of her name
9 Jan, 2021 02:18

Hey Diane,   It is very like ASL adapted to the setting, but also incorporates elements of poetic sign, which is a little bit different.   Thank you so much for your critique. This is one of the first articles I wrote here on WA, and I was still figuring out all of the formatting options, as well as what I actually wanted to do with this new format. Your feedback is so helpful to me as I move forward, and I'll definitely take it into account here and in my other articles when I clean up and edit from WorldEmber. ^_^