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What Is That Guy Doing, Anyway?

Can you tell language from non-language? Meaning from noise? Words from random movement or sound?

This is a topic we've discussed before. Language has a look and feel, or so we think. Comedians work wonders with this, from Charlie Chaplin to the Two Ronnies — here and here. But every once and a while something happens that makes us think again. The scandal of President Obama's sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's funeral was one such event. How could we (nonsigners) have been so blind to the obvious fraudulence of his movements?

Check out this hilarious video, brought to my attention, via Facebook, by the philosopher Teresa Blankmeyer Burke of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Professor Burke is deaf.

The scene: A press conference concerning Ebola in New York City held by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The sign language interpreter is a skilled professional — a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) — and he's doing a fine job. The CDI is interpreting the mayor's remarks for the deaf, while the subtitles are — this is the spoof part — "translating" the interpreter's signing to the rest of us. It's a funny and good-spirited reminder that, to so many of us, sign-language remains strange; we don't see the articulateness in it, we see only gesture.

But isn't there something potentially insulting about the video?

Aside from the fact that Ebola is no laughing matter, Professor Burke, via email, said she doesn't find the video offensive. Just the contrary, in fact: It is a pleasant relief.

"Some people still think ASL [American Sign Language] is really just gestures," she explained. "Since this is a trope deaf people get all the time from otherwise reasonably intelligent people, it is nice to be able to laugh at this, instead of once again sighing and having to explain that, yes, ASL is a real language, that the interpreter is conveying actual language content, and that the interpreter isn't just being 'expressive' but showing grammar through the facial expressions."

Just the same humor is at work in Catherine Tate's hilarious, and borderline insulting, "Offensive Translator" skit, which I've posted here previously. As with the Mayor de Blasio CDI spoof, the humor stems from bringing into the open the limits to our powers of perception.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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