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Many thoughtful men have been trying for a century, at least, to give mankind a world-speech which would overstep all linguistic barriers, and one cannot help wondering why they have overlooked the Sign Language, the one mode common to all mankind, already established and as old as Babel. Yes, more ancient than the hills.
As far back as the records go, we find the Sign Language in use. General Hugh L. Scott has pointed out nineteen examples in Homer. Greek vases, Japanese bronzes, ancient Hindu statuary, as well as songs and legends older than history, give testimony in like tenor. While Egyptologists remind us that the oldest records show, not only that the Sign Language was then used, but that the one original code was much like that in use to-day. The fact that it is yet found all over the world wherever man is man, is proof of its being built on human nature in the beginnings. We might even argue that it is more ancient than speech.
Ideas certainly came before the words that express them. The idea of “hunger” must be a thousand times as old as any existing “word” for “hunger.” When it became necessary to communicate to another the idea of hunger, it certainly was easier and more direct to communicate it by gesture than by word. The word had, perforce, to be more or less arbitrary, but the gesture was logical, and could at once indicate the pain, its place, and even hint at the cause.
The possible variations of a mere squeak in a concealed pipe are obviously less in number and far less graphic and logical than the various movements of two active, free-moving, compound, visible parts of the body that utilize all the dimensions of space, all the suggestions of speed, motion, physical form and action, juxtaposition, yes, even a measure of sound, and that could in a multitude of cases reproduce the very idea itself.
Animals have far more gestures to express thoughts and emotions than they have sounds, and children instinctively use gestures for various ideas long before they acquire the sound for them. In all races as a rule the very young children’s gestures are the same, but the different words imposed by the different mothers have little or nothing in common, and no obvious basis in logic. All of which goes to prove the greater antiquity of eye-talk over ear-talk. To which conclusion we are forced also by the superiority of sight over hearing as a sense. “Seeing is believing,” is convincement: hearing is more open to challenge.
Nor can the sign-talk have changed radically, for it is founded on the basic elements of human make-up, and on mathematics, and is so perfectly ideographic that no amount of bad presentation can completely divert attention from the essential thought to the vehicle; while punning is an impossibility.
It had all the inherent possibilities of speech, was indeed capable of even greater subtleties, as we have noted, and had a far greater distance range, three or four times that of spoken words.
In view of the greater antiquity and many advantages that hand gestures have over spoken language, one is prompted to ask: Why did it not develop and continue man’s chief mode of inter-communication? The answer is, doubtless, partly because it was useless in the dark or when the person was out of sight or partly hidden by intervening things.