Daily Archives: 15 March 2004

Morobe Field Diary, August 1976: Deaf Villagers and Home Sign

Dear S,

By the grace of good saint Quinine the Deaf, I have found myself in a village of about 150 people, 4 of whom are deaf. Since your morbid interest in the subject is well known I thought you might be interested. I am also wondering if there might be any questions I could answer or look into on the subject while I’m here.

(There is also a full-fledged crazy who wanders around in a blanket exposing himself from time to time and calmly enduring abuse when he comes where he is not wanted. And then of course there’s that odd foreigner so addicted to books & paper who actually jumps at the chance to do physical labor in between his alchemizing. In a community of only 25 houses the ratio of oddities to normal people is almost as high as that of L.A.)

All of the deaf are men between the ages of about 30 and 45. One, my roommate, is profoundly deaf and his father too was apparently deaf. The two of them used to communicate in sign I hear tell. Now though, the son of my hosts is the only one fluent in his home sign and the only one who communicates with him extensively with much effectiveness. I am probably the second most familiar with his signs and I am so often in the the dark that, if it wasn’t my job to spend a good deal of my time listening to unintelligible conversation like a dog under the table hoping a juicy scrap will be thrown my way, then I would probably give up in despair like most of the village and pay him little heed.

The other three deaf men more recently lost their hearing and people still shout at them from time to time. There is no sense of community among the deaf people and no attempt to develop a home sign of their own. The three more recently deaf can still speak (in a monotone and often too softly) so the ones that suffer the most frustration are the ones who want to communicate with them, particularly the spouse of one of them. Since clearing forest, building canoes and houses and catching fish are not tasks requiring good hearing, except when done cooperatively, all of their lives are less unproductive than increasingly solitary.

Though those three are fairly well acculturated and share pretty much the same reality as the other people in the village (except for one who won’t forsake Pidgin when communicating with me–usually to trade betel nut for tobacco. He irritated me till I found out the reason whereupon my knee jerked and my heart bled but he still irritates me.), but I have recently come to realize that one of the troubles I have in following the really deaf guy is that he makes reference to worlds I do not expect. It hit me rather forcefully one day when he was telling war stories (many probably came from his father or perhaps from people who have signed to him since they match what others tell me about the mountains of food & tobacco of the American troops, etc.; others he got from a trip to the Lae Military Barracks where his manucommunicant worked). He, in the midst of describing weapons of various sorts, described one sort of pliers-like contraption which he indicated was used to snip off people’s noses, ears, and pinch out their eyes (sorry, gentle reader, if thy sensibilities are offended). I looked rather puzzled and asked who. He described their skin color as being, after searching around for some time to find an example of the color, purple! Combining that with another story of a flying submarine I can only conclude that he is a bit too credulous of the comics he looks at (he’s an avid reader but absolutely illiterate) or of whatever movies he’s seen.

I’ve also just come to realize that he has a reputation (well deserved) for thieving. He has been pilfering my stuff shamelessly.


RAIN – arms raised pointing back over shoulder, fingers spread and hands fall repeatedly in unison facing back as if rain falling on shoulders (never falls on face).

WIND – hands rotate in front of face clockwise blowing air toward face & chest.

EAT – fingers in letter O touch lips as teeth champ several times.

BISKITS (flat, unleavened, hard ship biskits) – B-hand pulled away from mouth as teeth clamp together.

PEPPER PLANT (eaten with betel nut) – single finger (index) pulled away from mouth or dipped into palm of left hand as if dipping into lime powder (culturally transparent) (the dipping into ‘lime’ and putting finger toward mouth also indicates lime itself).

BEATING SAGO – both hands held together as if holding a golfclub (actually a sago beater) and pounded up & down (culturally transparent)

SLEEP, NIGHT, 24 hr period – head inclines toward palm of hand which acts as pillow. Three nites would be SLEEP – 1 – SLEEP – 2 – SLEEP 3

DAY, SUN, TIME OF DAY – pointing at place sun comes up, the hand follows the arc of the sun until the appropriate location is reached. As far as I know, orientation is always to actual sunrise & sunset, not to conventionalized location in relation to body.

STUDENT – writing with index finger on open palm of left hand. (‘School’ in the local language is, roughly translated, ‘house paper’.)

In addition, this congenitally deaf fellow can pronounce two words which, significantly I suspect, both involve labials.

mou ‘none, no’ [mou] (I’m not sure how much actual nasalization)

bamo ‘a lot’ [ba-a] (the [a] ends up creaky voiced and long; it is almost always rather long when hearers say it)

Many signs are commonly used or known, especially those pertaining to work, like line-fishing, beating sago palm and betel nut paraphernalia. But I have never seen any Siboma use an action like his INTENSIFIER. On the other hand his numbers match the Siboma numerical metaphors.

5 = nimateula (‘half hand’) = ENUMERATION + HAND

10 = nimabesua (‘both hands’) = ENUMERATION + BOTH-HANDS-TOGETHER

20 = tamota te (‘one man’) = ENUMERATION + HANDS-AND-FEET-TOGETHER

Let me know if there are any particular signs you are interested in.

Em tasol,


KAUNSIL – indicates badge on chest (which kaunsil never wears)

DEAD – palms facing front, arms slitely bent at sides, bead thrown back turned to one side, eyes closed

WHITES – salute

SAILOR – round hat on head indicated

JPNSE – big head/helmet

CHINESE – flatnose

REEF, ISLAND – circle drawn horizontally at chest level from above

HOUSE – palms parallel or straight w/ fingers making roof

OLD – beard

AFRAID – draws arms into chest and withdraws to one side

REFERENTS-PEOPLE – indicated by house [location] or outstanding physical trait

INTENSIFIER – turns face to one side, drawing shoulder up to chin, and closing eyes. Maintained for about 1 sec or more.

PUNISHMENT, INCARCERATION – one wrist over the other in front of chest as if hands tied, both wrists facing down, hands in fists

CHURCH – hands clasped, fingers interlaced, in front of neck

POLICE – arms come up to chest as if marching

LINE FISHING – arms bent at elbow before chest, raised alternately as when pulling in a handline

M.V. SAGO (the village diesel-powered fishing boat) – hands rotate back & forth an imaginary steering wheel

(M.V. SAGO, LINE FISHING & POLICE are a near-minimal trio: all have alternate arm movement but different end points and orientation)

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