Lydia Callis

Caveats: I’m not deaf myself, but I’ve taken an interest in deaf culture and ASL.  In part, probably because I’ve always been interested in linguistics and languages, ASL being no exception.

Not a New Yorker, I found out about Lydia Callis interpreting for Mayor Bloomberg belatedly, across the interweb.  Here, I believe, is the full mayor update:

I admit, I couldn’t take my eyes off Lydia Callis.  I don’t follow Twitter, but (I would say, unfortunately) comments were repeated in various news articles.  I can’t tell whether Lydia Callis was instantly launched to fame because of the outstanding job she did and a newfound respect for the visual intricacies of ASL, whether it was due to the stark juxtaposition of spoken but expressionless Bloomberg with silent but passionate Callis, or out of mockery and misunderstanding – such as comments that Callis was injecting humor into the situation and so on.  It did seem clear that Callis visually displayed the emotion, the dangerousness, and the urgency that was absent from Bloomberg’s tone of voice, while inferred from his words.  (granted, political leaders are supposed to portray calm to avoid panic)

From what I gather, interest in Callis is mixed between admiration of job well done and ignorance of how ASL works, in that exaggerated facial expressions are part of the language, although I think all admirers of Callis are trying to convey respect, even if misguided.

By the way, I read recently that African American sign language can be quite different from ASL signed by white people. Article here.  I’m not sure if the two types of signing are distinctive enough to be two different languages, or more along the lines of two different dialects.  First, I gather that American Sign Language is closer to French Sign Language (as opposed to British), because of how it was brought to and taught in the states.  Also, according to the article, black sign language, which emphasizes more signage and less reliance on lip reading and facial expression (if I understand it correctly), may be closer to the “truer” sign language.  This is because, decades ago, deaf children were taught that oral language is “better” (now debunked), to not sign, and to learn to lip read and follow facial expression; and that black deaf children did not learn this, and thus kept aspects of signing lost to white students, because they were kept from those schools.  The other point is that language (any language) is influenced by peer groups, regions, culture.  So that people’s signing will reflect their culture, their peers; i.e. a New Yorker will sign like a New Yorker.

Because it is the current meme and/or latest news, media is running with it and quick to launch Callis-based parody sketches.  My question is whether these are found funny by the deaf community, or insulting.  and again, it would depend on the sketch.  People who have put Callis to music-mash ups, I imagine the joke would be lost on the non-hearing community.  Callis put to Psy for example.  Is it mockery, in comparing ASL to flashing gang signs?  or is it appreciative in respecting how deftly and emphatically she can sign? or both?  I did read that Marlee Matlin took offense to Saturday Night Live’s recent skit.  and that the deaf community took offense to Chelsea Handler’s mockery.  (I did see the Saturday Night Live skit, and thought that was amusing.  But, after reading about the response to Chelsea Handler, I decided I wouldn’t want to see that.)

[By the way, I watched that episode of Seinfeld with Marlee Matlin, which includes the famous hilarious scene where she lip reads George and Seinfeld, though they hide their lips.  During the penultimate scene in the episode, Matlin’s character is lip reading two people whom George wants to spy on, and Kramer is interpreting Matlin to George and crew.  The pivotal translating error is that Matlin’s character thinks she lip read “sleep,” as in “we slept together,” when they actually said “sweep,” “we swept together…cleaning”.  Which leads George into a tizzy – you slept together?!, etc.  However – and did anybody else catch this? – I thought I noticed that Matlin did actually sign “sweep,” not “sleep”.  oops.  Maybe Matlin wasn’t given a script, but told to sign what the people actually said, and then Kramer’s script read to say “sleep.”  But you’d think Matlin would catch that.  Or maybe she did, and it was an in-joke to the deaf community?  …or, I’m wrong and she did sign “sleep”]

anyways… so I watched the SNL skit:

I thought it was ok.  I thought that the actress playing Callis actually did sign some actual ASL words (as opposed to others, in other skits, who just completely make up nonsense).  I think the point of the skit was more to show ASL speakers reflecting their culture, a New Jerseyian is going to sign like a New Jerseyian – even if it was over-the-top and nonsense signing.  Since a lot of humor is based on mockery, where’s the line between offense and humor?  Matlin is right that it’s just like doing a fake Spanish or Chinese stereotypes…but those are done all the time, like it or not.  Are people’s praise of Callis based on ignorance and misunderstanding (she was funny in some court jester way) or based on respect and admiration (she conveyed the emotion and importance that Bloomberg was implying and/or she truly conveyed the danger of the storm and the need to find safety)?  Are people merely mocking?  or is it a case of, we mock because we love?


here’s someone’s response to those mocking signing, pertaining to Lydia Callis:

(I know it’s meant for the deaf community only, but I kindof wish it had closed captions, so I could know what he has to say, too.  irony?)

here’s another response against Chelsea Handler: (no longer available)

mocking ASL in general:

lastly, I like this one, I think it really makes a strong point.  How would you like it if you can’t understand what is being said, and people are butchering – or faking or mocking – the language that you speak, in addition to leaving you clueless as to what is being said. (no longer available, bummer)

I am hoping there is a bright side to this whole thing.  Which is that, through Lydia Callis, many hearing people learned about how interesting and expressive ASL is and will want to learn it.

References/Related Sites:

Check out this site, about Callis’ interpretation, which helps hearing people understand her expressions:


Update 7/16/14:

So it appears a lot of my links no longer work.  To help make up for it, here’s the Coda (children of deaf adults) brothers.  They present aspects of deaf and hearing culture with comedy.

Coda Brothers


No Responses to “Lydia Callis”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: