Talking Hands is in part the story of the development of sign languages around the world, and in part an exploration of the development of language and how that might have occurred in human history. The little Bedouin settlement which is the main case study is a place where a sign language has arisen independently of other sign languages, and its development has mirrored that of the development of spoken languages in ways which may reveal important things about the way the human brain handles language.
Most of the neurological stuff wasn’t new to me, and it’s definitely on a level any reader can appreciate; it doesn’t go into massively technical terms, or dissect vast case studies about the way injuries affect the brain, etc. The historical context of sign language and how people treated deaf and dumb people in the past was newer for me. I wasn’t aware, for example, that for ages people — even deaf people — considered sign language inferior because it lacked the sort of grammar people recognised. It was even suppressed in favour of cumbersome sign language which followed word-for-word the pattern of spoken language, ignoring the potential for a spatial grammar.
Margalit Fox comes across as a science writer rather than a scientist, making the book very accessible — either on its own, or as a complement to more in-depth works about language like Steven Pinker’s. I didn’t find it as fascinating as her book on decrypting Linear B, but her writing is clear and concisely informative, and I enjoyed reading the book. I wasn’t always sure about the way she characterised actual people; I wouldn’t find some of those descriptions very flattering/respectful… but she did write it with the approval and help of the team working in the Bedouin village, according to her introduction, and it’s never disrespectful about disability or intelligence.