In Space No-one Can Hear You Scream…, by Dai O’Brien

They are recurring tropes in science fiction – the broken radio, the frantic gesticulation through heavy plate glass or through CCTV cameras, the tragic inability to communicate which results in loss, injury or being eaten by a giant space spider. The unheard scream in space isn’t only from death, danger or injury. It can also be a scream of frustration, despair or loneliness at being unable to communicate with other beings.

There are recurring attempts in science fiction to bypass or get around the problems of protagonists not sharing a common language. In the Strugatsky brothers’ (2017) The Doomed City everyone seems to somehow hear other people’s speech in their own language as part of ‘the experiment’. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), there is the marvel of the babel fish which excretes a telepathic matrix into people’s brains which allows them to understand anything said to them in any language. Doctor Who has the translation matrix, another telepathic system which allows the Doctor and companions to communicate through different languages, although, strangely, not sign language. Unfortunately, no such technological fix or narrative tool will exist for Terra 2, so an alternative must be found which will allow people from various cultures and language backgrounds to communicate directly with one another.

I propose that all citizens of Terra 2 must learn and use sign language.

Terra 2 will be a multicultural, multinational, diverse society in which all citizens will be valued equally. Therefore, the language of the colony must be one which is mutually accessible for all. Sign language, and its close cousin, tactile sign language, fulfils that need, being accessible for all, deaf or hearing, blind or sighted.

Sign has a long tradition of promoting cross-cultural communication, cooperation and political aspirations, which continues to this day. In contemporary international gatherings of Sign Language Peoples (SLPs), the shared visual-spatial-tactile modality and grammar of sign languages lend themselves to easy communication across languages and cultures using International Sign (WASLI ND, Crasborn and Hiddinga 2015). Sign was used as a lingua franca of the Plains Indians in North America as they did not share a single spoken language (Mallery 1881, Seton 1918). During the Enlightenment period in France, sign was embraced as a gift from God, a universal language which tied us to Nature and expressed our common humanity (Massieu, in De Ladébat 1815).

There are several examples of communities on Earth which are or were bilingual in sign and spoken language. One of the most famous was Martha’s Vineyard, immortalised in Nora Groce’s Everyone here spoke sign language (1988). Everyone in the village was fluent in sign to the extent that they forgot who was deaf or hearing. Sign was not only used out of ‘politeness’ to include deaf and hearing citizens, but also for practical reasons. Groce recounts that fishermen would converse between boats in sign when the distance and weather put paid to attempts to shout across the water, and people communicated from up and down the street with one another in sign so as not to disturb others with shouting (Groce 1980).

Raymond Lee, a Deaf SLP wise in the ways of sign, talked of ghosts dancing on your fingers as you sign, a spiritual/physical act tying us in a never-ending moving ribbon to our ancestors (Ladd 2003). Maisie Baillie, another wise Deaf SLP has said ‘Thank God for this gift He has given us – our beautiful language, our hands’ (Ladd 2003). Sign is also considered to be a gift that SLPs can share with their non-signing fellow citizens, a gift of communication across borders and senses. This is a gift that could find full fruition in the fertile, creative ground of Terra 2.

Communication through the movement of bodies is intimate; it forces connection and understanding. Spoken languages, while sharing articulatory organs and appendages in the throat and tongue, are frustratingly disconnected from the physicality of our surroundings. When our language is visibly, viscerally tied to our bodies, it forces us to find new affordances in our anatomy, new ways of understanding and using our bodies and how they exist in the environment (Edwards 2019). Misunderstandings in spoken languages spiral off into the air. Misunderstandings in sign can be traced back to the body, to the concrete, to the shared, spatial and physical reality in which we live.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Loud As A Whisper, a deaf negotiator (played by Deaf SLP actor Howie Seago) uses the task of learning sign language as a way of building understanding between two warring civilizations. When we embody our communication, connections are deeper, community bonds are stronger and maybe, just maybe, we ourselves are better.

In space no-one can hear you scream, but they can see you sign.




Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchikers Guide To The Galaxy. London: Pan Books.

Crasborn, O. and Hiddinga, A. (2015) ‘The paradox of international sign: the importance of deaf-hearing encounters for deaf-deaf communication across sign language borders’. In Freidner, M. and Kusters, A. (Eds) It’s a small world: international deaf spaces and encounters. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

De Ladébat, M.L. (1815) A collection of the most remarkable definitions and answers of Massieu and Clerc, deaf and dumb, to the various questions put to them, at the public lectures of the Abbé Sicard, in London. London: Cox and Baylis.

Doctor Who: Under the Lake (2015) BBC 3 October 2015.

Edwards, T. (2019) Leaving visually alone:  protactile theories of cultural space at Gallaudet University. Presentation at Theorizing Deaf Geographies, Heriot Watt University 23 May 2019.

Groce, N. (1980) Everyone here spoke sign language. Natural History 89 (6) 10-16.

Groce, N.E. (1988) Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness in Martha’s Vineyard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding deaf culture: in search of Deafhood. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Star Trek The Next Generation: Loud as a Whisper (1989) BBC 1 May 1991.

Mallery, G. (1881) Sign language among North American Indians compared with that among other peoples and deaf-mutes. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Seton, E.T. (2000 [1918]) Sign Talk of the Cheyenne Indians and other cultures. New York: Dover Publications Inc.

Strugatsky, A. and Strugratsky, B. ((2017 [1989]) The Doomed City. London: Gollancz.

WASLI (ND) accessed 2.8.19

Dai signing

Dai O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in York St John University. He is bilingual in BSL and English and a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Some favourite authors include Stephen Erikson, Ursula Le Guin, Iain M. Banks and Liu Cixin.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s