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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Signs: Ursula Bellugi and the Neuroscience of Language.

Sign Language is a grammarless series of bluntly defined iconic hand gestures.

Until William Stokoe (1919-2000) published his groundbreaking Sign Language Structure in 1960, this was overwhelmingly the opinion of linguists and psychologists regarding the complexity and potential for expressive nuance of American Sign Language. They saw it as a slow and cumbersome poor replacement for spoken English, and some even doubted its status as a language, based on theories that brains were hard-wired to understand language in a linear acoustic manner, and that anything lacking that modality couldn’t even be considered a language.

Stokoe was among the first to attempt to study the basic structural elements of sign language, but its representation as a fully grammatical and self-consistent language independent of English had to wait until 1979, when Ursula Bellugi (1931-2022) and her husband William Klima published The Signs of Language, which presented the results of years of close study with native signers and pulled back the veil on the stunning richness and potential of non-verbal communication.

How Bellugi managed to find grammar where other researchers had only seen a blockish succession of iconic signifiers can perhaps be traced back to the circumstances of her youth. Born Ursula Herzberger in Jena, Germany, in 1931, her father was a mathematician and physicist, and her mother an artist, a combination of influences which, as we’ll soon see, one can’t help but think came into play in her later ability to discern fine gradations of motion and rigorously categorize them.

Being of Jewish ancestry, her father could not stay long in his position as a professor at the University of Jena with Hitler’s rise to power and subsequent expulsion of Jews from academic positions. Fortunately, his former teacher Albert Einstein managed to find a job for him as an optical researcher at Kodak, in Rochester, New York, allowing the family to emigrate in 1934 and escape the fate that befell so many less well-connected Jewish individuals under Hitler’s Final Solution. Of her youth, there is virtually nothing in the public record until her matriculation at Antioch College in Ohio in the late 1940s. Here, she met Piero Bellugi (1924-2012), an Italian conducting student who had recently travelled to the United States to study with Rafael Kubelik and Leonard Bernstein. The couple married in 1954, two years after Ursula received her bachelor’s degree.

At this point, Bellugi’s activity again falls into something of a black hole. Over the course of the next five years, we know that she had two children, and that in 1959 she divorced Piero and maintained custody of the children. Her graduate studies in the 1960s, then, were carried out while also attempting to navigate life as a single mother, and in the face of institutions that were still not accustomed to the presence of women researchers. She pursued her doctorate in education at Harvard University, writing her dissertation under Roger Brown on negation in children’s speech. While studying at Harvard, she was also taking linguistics classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) was the rising superstar, and where she met Edward Klima (1931-2008), who had been teaching there since 1957 and was heavily influenced by Chomsky’s biologically-centered approach to linguistics.

By 1968, the pair were married and had moved to La Jolla, California, where Klima taught at the University of California, San Diego (which had just enrolled its first students in 1964), and Bellugi worked at the Salk Institute (which was likewise less than a decade old at the time, having just been founded in 1960). She founded the Laboratory for Language and Cognitive Science in 1970, and soon set out as her first research question the problem of how language works for people who cannot participate in its acoustic and verbal components. Recalling this time later, she related how she knew so little of visual linguistic systems at the time that her first step was simply to look in the Yellow Pages under the “deaf” category and dial the numbers she found there. Through these first rudimentary and tentative connections with the world of American Sign Language (ASL), and the research of Stokoe, she began laying out her program, which was to categorize ASL as a language, rather than as a brute system of one-to-one signs.

An initial hindrance in the study was the fact that she and her colleagues simply didn’t know the depths of what they didn’t know. In The Signs of Language she cites an experiment where different native signers were asked to relate in sign language the sentence “His face became red in the wind.” Some signers seemingly reduced this sentence to the far less rich FACE RED, or WIND RED, as if confirming all the earlier prejudices that ASL is a shambling Frankenstein-like mode of just-barely-communicating. Bellugi, however, looked more closely, slowing down the footage of the signers to notice that signers changed how they delivered different signs to convey different meanings, that just as regular English grammar adds endings and explanatory phrases to words to convey extra grammatical meaning, so do signers modulate their delivery of the signs to give them simultaneous extra layers of grammatical signification. For example, a sign that means SICK when held stationary will, when rotated in elliptical motions, take on the meaning of “gets sick often,” whereas, if delivered with tensed hands and more rapid than usual motions, it will take on the meaning of “very or intensely sick.” A performer’s modulation of base signs, then, conveys extra information that is totally opaque to outsiders, who are only reading the direct translation of each sign, but which can be elegantly picked up on and interpreted by native visual speakers.

Because producing words with hands takes physically longer than producing words through vocalization, ASL has evolved to a hyper-efficient state whereby a great deal of grammatical structure and meaning are all offered simultaneously to the eye, so that while a speaker is still droning on with the sentence, “The child was susceptible to repeated sickness,” the signer disposes of the same content in a couple of densely meaningful motions, resulting in rates of information transmission essentially no different from that of spoken language. Most importantly, there are rules. The modulation that turns SICK into HABITUALLY SICK, for example, cannot be used for the adjective UGLY, because it is only usable for states that one can fall intermittently into. You can be habitually WRONG, you can be habitually QUIET, but you can’t be habitually UGLY - you are either are, or are not. These rules for which modifications can be used with which types of words, as well as other rules for how compound words work, and where location references can be used, add up to the grammar of ASL, a grammar which is based on maximizing the efficiency of its mode of communication, and which is much more than just an importation of English rules, and which as such had to wait for discovery until someone came along who was willing to engage with ASL on its own terms, instead of repeatedly looking for English equivalents and, failing to find them, declaring that ASL lacked structure.

The Signs of Language was published in 1979, and was such a cornerstone of not only signed language studies, but of a re-evaluation of what languages can be, that it was reprinted in 1995, which is a rather rare thing in a field where technological developments and theoretical debates tend to bury their elders with grim rapidity. In the meantime, Bellugi was attracted by a new linguistic puzzle in the form of Williams Syndrome (WMS), a condition that affects some 30,000 individuals in the US currently. Individuals with Williams Syndrome have a deletion in chromosome 7 of a couple dozen genes that have a profound, characteristic, and unusual effect on development. Williams Syndrome children often suffer from a narrowing of blood vessels in the heart that leads to a chain of other severe health conditions requiring vigilant medical supervision. They also have a reduction of IQ similar to that of Down’s Syndrome patients, but crucially have uncharacteristically sharp linguistic and musical competencies, and a hypersociality and openness to strangers that has caused Williams to sometimes be referred to as Reverse Autism.

Bellugi studied the performance of individuals with Williams Syndrome as against those with Down Syndrome on a variety of tests and neural measurements to determine just how they can operate so well linguistically, when so many other features of their cognitive life were so drastically impaired. In one test, for example, children were given a storybook with no words and asked to create a story to fit the pictures they saw. WMS subjects evinced a rich array of prosodic story-telling devices to capture and hold the attention of their listeners, including relation of the imagined mental states of the characters, sound effects, and crafted dialogue between the characters. This affective richness of description, combined with WMS children’s good performance on tests of facial recognition and memory, created something of a conundrum.

Whereas neuroscience had ready-to-hand models of individuals with good linguistic abilities but poor spatial cognition in the form of people with right-hemisphere brain damage, that damage also tended to go arm in arm with poor performance on affective narration tasks and facial recognition. WMS individuals didn’t quite fit the Right Hemisphere Damage model, and analysis of their brains, while showing a general shrinkage in brain mass that they shared with Down Syndrome individuals, did not show any right hemisphere lesioning to speak of, leading Bellugi to conclude that WMS represents a “consistent but new and different biologically-determined neurobehavioral pattern.” Just as ASL users found their own way to language without the benefit of supposedly critical verbal and acoustic elements, so have the brains of individuals with WMS found their own unique way to uncharacteristic proficiency with language that has found a successful workaround for how language is “supposed” to work on the neural level.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Bellugi published her findings on Williams Syndrome and what WMS individuals could teach us about the development of language in articles and books which, when combined with her work on deafness and sign language in the 1970s and 1980s, summed to a remarkable half century of linguistic research that earned her more awards than can be listed here, as well as a fellowship at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Society, and the American Psychological Association, and membership of the National Academy of Sciences (2008). She continued working at Salk, watching the institute grow to a world-class center of biological research, until her retirement in 2018 at the age of 87. She died peacefully at her La Jolla home in 2022, at the age of 91, leaving behind her vast new vistas for what language can be, if we step outside of our own assumptions long enough to observe, understand, and reflect.


The Signs of Language is a fascinating and eye-opening book that is pretty easy to find copies of, and will make you fundamentally rethink all of the aspects of language that you consider Central to communication, but which are in actuality more or less artifacts of spoken language’s limitation to linear expression. Information about Bellugi’s life is thinner on the ground, and largely limited to the various obituaries published in 2022, of which the best is probably that of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And if you want to read more tales of great women neuroscientists, keep an eye out for my History of Women in Psychology and Neuroscience, available in Spring 2024 from Pen and Sword Books!


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