The Steerswoman is the first of what is currently a four-book series by Rosemary Kirstein, with more entries apparently planned. It was originally published in 1989, with the latest book so far, The Language of Power, coming out in 2004.
The setting is what appears to be a low-fantasy world slowly making its way to a scientific revolution via the actions of the eponymous Steerswomen to collect knowledge and explore the world. Several items and events seen by the characters as "magical" are easily (or less than easily) identifiable to an attentive reader as entirely mundane and technological in nature, which gives the story a somewhat similar feeling to other stories like the earlier Dragonriders of Pern, or the more contemporaneous Black Trillium. As of the end of the first book, however, it is not entirely clear whether this will turn out to be a full-on sci-fi in disguise, like Pern, or if some of the magic will remain unexplained and fundamentally magical. (As an aside, all three of these series happen to be written by women and have female main characters--which is unfortunately notable when it comes to "classic" sci-fi and fantasy!)
The plot threads dealing with physics and chemistry make it feel almost like a mystery novel at times, as the characters investigate mysterious events, although there is an extra level of dramatic irony present given that we, the readers, exist in a post-Isaac-Newton society which allows for solving these mysteries must faster than the characters can! And I think the author is to be commended for not falling victim to presentism and allowing the characters to realistically struggle with their existing physical preconceptions, rather than having genius-level flashes of insight about things that are only obvious to us because we have been taught the answers.
The Steerswoman has very little surface-level linguistic content, which puts it outside the realm of things I would usually review and analyze, but there is a great deal of recognition of linguistic knowledge; while the Steerswoman's world seems to have a single universal human oral language, that fact is not entirely taken for granted by the Steerswomen, and several characters do in fact comment on the dialectal and accent variations that exist throughout the world, and how they can be used to identify someone's origins and social affiliations. And it turns out that there is some surface-level linguistic content... exhibiting a sign language!
I have been looking for examples of books with sign language representation, so finding this entirely by accident in a book I was reading for other reasons was kind of nice! In particular, while they appear only incidentally in this first book, the Steerswoman's world contains multiple seemingly-intelligent non-human cultures, the most salient of which are the Wood Gnomes--small humanoid creatures who communicate via sign language with humans. (It is unclear if they also have their own oral language or not.)
In my initial research on how sign language might be represented in print, I came across this article specifically about ASL language and culture for writers; while the central focus of that article is not about portraying the language itself, it does have one very straightforward bit of advice: whatever you do, don't gloss. To quote:
Glossing, a tool that is often used in ASL textbooks and courses to help students remember ASL syntax, uses the words that most closely align to ASL signs and puts them in ASL order. Words in gloss are always written in the present tense and in capital letters. For example, the gloss of the ASL translation of the English sentence, “Where is your car?” would look like this:
YOUR CAR WHERE?
Glossing can be a valuable tool, but it is extremely limited because it does not show use of space or nonmanual signals (for example, eyebrow and mouth movements and body shifts, all of which serve a grammatical function in ASL).
Worse, when glossing appears in fiction, it gives an incomplete picture of the language and makes deaf characters sound primitive and limited in communication. What’s wrong with using standard dialogue conventions and replacing “said” with “signed”?:
“Where is your car?” she signed.
And you know what? That seems like pretty darn good advice. Almost obvious advice. I certainly wouldn't recommend word-for-word translations of oral languages, either--and I have yet to ever come across that as a secondary-language incorporation technique in the wild, which suggest to me that most-if-not-all authors also see that as an obviously bad idea. Yet there does seem to be a temptation to do it with signed languages, as that is the only exposure to sign language examples in print that many people have ever had. So what else are you gonna do? In the absence of standard sign orthographies, it doesn't seem like there are really any good options other than not actually showing the sign language at all, and relying entirely on free translation with language-specific dialog tags as suggested above.
So, what does The Steerswoman do?
A typical example of Wood Gnome conversation can be seen in this excerpt from the beginning of chapter 9:
Rowan turned back to the wood gnome and addressed him in the language of hand signals that his people shared with humans. "Where woman?" she gestured.
"Woman in bed," he replied, obviously meaning Rowan.
"No. Other woman." She pointed to the bed with Bel's clothing.
"Fur-woman. Noisy woman gone. Throw rock at me."
This isn't quite free translation, and it's not entirely clear what the broken-English representation is really meant to represent. Is it effectively word-for-word gloss? I don't know, but at least it is easy to read, not-all-caps block text!
Later on, Rowan encounters a deaf man who appears to communicate through some combination of iconic gestures and home sign. We are introduced to him and his communication style as follows:
[The woman] tapped her assistant on the shoulder as he made to unload another crate. Pausing in his work, he watched intently as she indicated Bel and Rowan and pointed from the boxes to the door; then he nodded pleasantly at the pair; he was deaf.
Attracting the disheveled man's attention again, she attempted to give him a more difficult, complicated instruction. Eventually comprehending, he led the way.
And a little later, we get some Wood Gnome Sign Language again:
At the top was a second landing, and there the man put down his crate, indicated those carried by the women, then indicated the floor. When they complied, he pointed at Rowan and Bell, back down the stairs, pointed at himself, and made a motion toward a short corridor behind him.
Without thinking, Rowan replied in the wood gnome language of gestures. "I understand. We go down now."
These particular phrases were simple and obvious, easily comprehensible to an intelligent person; but the formality of the gestures, and the fluid naturalness of their use, surprised him. It was more than pantomime, it was language, and he seemed to recognize something of this.
With a look of surprise and concentration, he repeated a phrase, pointing at himself, then extending his index finger near his right temple. "I understand." He said it twice, testing the moves.
Notably, although the signs cannot be directly written, there is some attempt in this passage to represent the actual diagetic language through partial descriptions of the forms of the signs. The last paragraph could even be analyzed as a classic example of appositive subtitling. And on general principle, I appreciate the explicit acknowledgment than sign language is language, at the same level as oral language, and distinct from non-linguistic gesturing. This deaf man has no real significance to the larger plot (although the context of this interaction with him does provide some additional clues for the reader in solving some scientific mysteries), so I can only assume that he was included specifically to allow the author to make this point!
Our final narrative exposure to him is as follows:
When Rowan delivered [the crate], she could not help speaking to the man again. "Work finished." Those signals were more abstract, and she amplified them with gestures indicating the stairs, the box, herself, and the man, and a negative shake of her head.
He watched in fascination. Then, with the crate precariously tucked under one arm, he replied, "I understand." He paused, thinking, the hesitantly added, "You go down now."
Although it is rather limited, I was also quite pleased by the representation of sign language, and it should provide a decent basis for comparison with other works.
If you liked this post, please consider making a small donation!