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Sumptuous Silence

Chion Wolf
Marie Coppola is an assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Connecticut where she directs the Language Creation Lab. She’s also the founder and Executive Director of Manos Unidas";
Credit Katie Tegtmeyer / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons

Imagine having no capacity for language acquisition. Imagine developing a language with grammars that are completely independent from the spoken language of the surrounding hearing culture.

Imagine being unable to engage in any of the thought processes I'm using right now: Choosing words, and bundles of words, to convey meaning, and pausing to ponder the interesting similarities between deafness and deficit; or grabbing for a phrase like "language acquisition" and appreciating the neat little package it represents. 

How different would you be? Would you be able to relate to things, even things that don't really require words? Do we laugh at slapstick for what it is, or are there underlying substructures of feeling and understanding that were created through language?

We explore that kind of thing this hour, as we examine and imagine frontiers where language simply does not exist. 

I've been thinking about this ever since reading The Silent History, an unusual novel about people who can't speak, read, or write. More than anything, the book shows how deeply people are locked into language as a means to communicate. It's so difficult to understand a world without words, that we block the signals sending us massive amounts of non-verbal communication every day. 

We talk to the co-author of The Silent History, a professor who works with children who are deaf and make their own language, and children with no pre-existing language, and a mime who uses silence to help people communicate.

***This originally aired on June 25th, 2014***

What do you think? Comment below, email Colin@wnpr.org, or tweet @wnprcolin.


  • Eli Horowitz  is the coauthor of several books, most recently, The Silent History with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett. Previously, he was the managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s for eight years
  • Marie Coppola is an assistant professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Connecticut. She's the founder and Executive Director of Manos Unidas
  • Bill Bowers is a world renowned mime and actor who studied under the legendary Marcel Marceau. He’s performed at The Kennedy Center, The White House, and on Broadway in “The Lion King” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel”
Colin McEnroe is a radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, author, playwright, lecturer, moderator, college instructor and occasional singer. Colin can be reached at colin@ctpublic.org.
Chion Wolf is the host of Audacious with Chion Wolf on Connecticut Public, featuring conversations with people who have uncommon or misunderstood experiences, conditions, or professions.
Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.

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