The Difference Between Univeralism and Relativism with Sign Language

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In our discussion of cochlear implants that, in my mind, seemed at times distastefully eugenicist, I found myself grappling with some difficult questions: How different would my experience of the world be if I communicated via American Sign Language instead of English? Does the existence of sign language benefit the world in some meaningful way? Just what, if anything, would be lost if the world lost sign language?

In trying to answer these questions, I am reminded of an aphorism my brother once shared with me that I've never forgotten: "There are two types of narcissism," he told me, "That of assuming one's experiences to be unique, and that of assuming one's experiences to be universal."

These two poles often butt their heads in
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If one takes the relativist stance, one holds that distinctions between colors are culturally based. There has been a great deal of scholarship on both sides of the issue, but a lot of recent work, specifically Akira Miyake's study of British English-speaking children and Namibia Himba-speaking children has supported the weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The Himba language has vastly different color categories from most other languages: zuzu for dark shades of blue, red, green and purple; vapa for white and some shades of yellow; buru for some shades of green and blue; and dambu for some other shades of green, red and brown. Miyake's study found that British children were better able to distinguish between a shade of green and a shade of blue that would both be considered "buru" to the Namibians, but that the Namibians were more able to distinguish between a shade of buru and a shade of dambu that would both be considered "green" to the British children! If Namibians and Britons experience the world differently as a result of their different languages, I would argue that each language is important as a creative (and not just descriptive) force, and that the loss of either would be distressing. So too, I would further argue, with ASL and spoken English.

The differences in experience between the speakers of spoken English and of ASL are

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