As we start to build up to our first performances of Earwig, we’ve decided to start a regular feature about deaf history on our social media platforms!

There’s so much to cover – so much that is often left unexplored by mainstream media! Unfortunately, as with anything historical, some of the terms, phrases and ideas we will be discussing are outdated and unacceptable to a modern audience. However, it’s important to acknowledge and learn from these aspects of history as we look towards a more inclusive future.

What is deafness?

Simply put, deafness occurs when when sound signals from the ear don’t reach the brain. However, deafness is anything but simple and can vary greatly from person to person. There are four main types: conductive hearing loss (involving the outer or middle ear), sensorineural (involving the inner ear), mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural) and auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder (where sound signals are disrupted as they travel to the brain). Within this, there are different levels, ranging from mild – where it is difficult to distinguish softer sounds, to profound – where sound cannot be detected at all. This impacts upon how those with deafness communicate – oral communication may be challenging to impossible, so communication methods such as lip reading and sign language can be key.

Ancient Greek fingerspelling drawn in 1494

The first known record of sign language was written in the 5th Century BC. In a dialogue on the “correctness of names”, Socrates says: “Suppose that we had no voice or tongue, and wanted to communicate with one another, should we not, like the deaf and dumb, make signs with the hands and head and the rest of the body?”. His belief that deaf people possessed an innate intelligence for language put him at odds with his student Aristotle, who said, “Those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason,” and that “it is impossible to reason without the ability to hear”.

This pronouncement would, unfortunately, reverberate through the ages and it was not until the 17th century that manual alphabets began to emerge, as did various treatises on deaf education, such as Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’), written by Juan Pablo Bonet in Madrid in 1620, and Didascalocophus, or, The deaf and dumb mans tutor, written by George Dalgarno in 1680.

Antique hand memory system, three variants. Originally published in “Thesavrvs Artificiosae Memoriae”, in Venice, 1579.

In Earwig, Marigold is profoundly deaf in her left ear (no sound at all) and mildly deaf in her right ear (some hearing but would struggle with soft sounds). This means she is deaf with a lowercase d. She uses written and spoken English as her first language, and isn’t part of Deaf society.

From the Bonet writings

Earwig plays at Edinburgh Festival Fringe at 14:10pm in Front Room (Assembly Rooms) between 4th and 27th August (minus 10th August). Tickets can be purchased via

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