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Remembering Dr. Edward S. Klima

Language is easy to take for granted . But the fact is , our vocabulary and the rules for its use, the syntax, are a reflection of the human mind, revealing the way we assimilate, process, and express ideas—the way we think.

Edward S. Klima, associate director of the Cognitive Neurosciences Laboratory at the Salk Institute and professor emeritus at UC San Diego until his death last September at age 77, dedicated his life to understanding language, from the way words and sentences are created to their neurobiology. Together with his wife, Salk Professor Ursula Bellugi, the two changed the linguistics landscape with their research on American Sign Language (ASL), for which they received the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1992.

Klima and Bellugi met in Cambridge, MA., where Klima had been invited by Noam Chomsky to teach graduate courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I remember someone invited me to go listen to the best syntactician there was," says Bellugi. "The class only had about 20 students enrolled in it, but more than 75 people came to the course to listen to his lectures." Soon after meeting, the two began collaborating on studies of development of language in children.

In 1968 they married and moved to La Jolla when Klima accepted a professorship at the new UC San Diego Linguistics Department. A year later Bellugi was invited by Jonas Salk to establish a small laboratory at the Salk Institute. The couple wondered how to integrate their research at Salk, where molecular biology is dominant, and decided to investigate the biological foundations of language by studying how deaf children of deaf parents learn a visual rather than an auditory language.

At the time "deaf communication was disparaged as either a loose collection of gestures or universal pantomime," recalls Bellugi, who is excited by the incredible path of their research, which today is widely recognized as a fundamental contribution to the neurobiology of language. "Essentially nothing was known about whether there was any structure to signs or sentences. We had to ask new questions and invent new ways of answering them."

Deaf children, even those born to deaf parents, were not permitted to use signs in school, instead urged to learn to speak and lip read, rather like forcing a left-handed child to write with the right hand.

What Klima and Bellugi's research revealed about ASL was groundbreaking. In their awardwinning book, The Signs of Language, they revealed how ASL displayed the properties of a distinct, independent language with its own form of grammar based on a visual-spatial modality. They discovered that over time, sign languages lose their iconicity as structure emerges within signs and in sentences. For example, sentences clearly have their own syntax based on patterning in space so that there is a grammatical and ungrammatical way to sign sentences. Interestingly, they found that sign languages differ systematically from one another – American and British Sign Languages arose independent of one another.

ASL signs also display duality of patterning, which means that they are built from sign elements such as the position of fingers and hand relative to the body, elements that mean nothing on their own.

"There was skepticism and debate among members of the deaf community when this research was first published," recalls UCSD Professor of Communications Carol Padden, who worked as a graduate student with Bellugi and Klima in the 1970s. "But because they collaborated directly with many deaf signers and the Salk Institute is so highly regarded, this helped bring a lot of legitimacy to the findings."

Padden, the daughter of deaf parents who were professors at the world's only deaf college, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., invited her parents to meet Klima and Bellugi while she was working at Salk.

"My parents were surprised," she says. "Ursula and Ed weren't asking questions to learn about deaf people for the sake of rehabilitation or education, as was usually the case. They were firm about shifting the discussion of sign language to the science of cognition.

"They invited deaf people—children and adults, artists and poets and actors—into their lab and asked questions that even deaf people hadn't ever thought about before: 'What does the speed of signing mean?' 'How are our sentences structured?' 'What is the morphology of our words?' It wasn't about helping deaf people, it was about understanding the human capacity for language. Their research legitimized deaf culture and gave us a vocabulary to discuss it, transforming the way that even deaf people talk about themselves."

It also opened a new channel for research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, explains Greg Hickok, a professor at UC Irvine who joined the Klima-Bellugi team in the 1990s as a postdoctoral researcher. "If their research on sign language had shown it to be just a collection of gestures, then we wouldn't be able to use it now to understand how language is organized in the brain," Hickok says.

Klima and Bellugi, together with Hickok and others, have shown that despite the difference in the perception of language (vision versus hearing) and production (movement of hands in space versus voice), the organization of spoken language and sign language in the brain are remarkably similar, leading to a new understanding of neural circuitry of language.

As a result, researchers like Padden are now able to work with communities of deaf and hearing people around the world who have developed new sign languages that are three or four generations old compared to the 200-year-old ASL. This allows them to observe what cannot be seen in any other way: the spontaneous generation and evolution of human language.

"Edward and Ursula were there at the very beginning of this research, at a time when almost nothing was known about the structure of sign language, other than impressionistic descriptions," says Padden. "Now, there is so much research underway. We couldn't do the work that we're doing without the tools that Ursula and Ed developed."

Upon hearing the news of his death, friends and colleagues sent letters of condolence, recalling his enthusiasm for art, dance, music, and experimenting with recipes in the kitchen, as well as the family-like dynamic that Klima and Bellugi fostered among members of their laboratories.

"He was probably the most open-minded person I've ever met in research," says Hickok. "Scientists often become very attached to their theories and have trouble looking outside of their own ideas to consider other possibilities. But Ed was always willing to entertain the ideas of others. And the farther an idea was from the standard theories, the more excited he would get about it, as long as it made sense."

His friends and colleagues also remark on Klima's careful contemplation of not only research questions and study designs, but on nuances of word meanings and usage, and how they are interpreted in poetry, literature, and other writing.

"He made us really think about what we were saying on a much deeper level than people normally do," says Yvonne Searcy, a research assistant in Bellugi's lab who remembered once spending an hour with Klima discussing the use and meaning of the word "intelligence" in a paper she had written.

Klima was known for his precision with words and ideas and his quick wit. He spoke gently, discreetly, and was admired for his rapid play on words and his puns (humor is, after all, a heightened use of language), always uttered with modesty and, as his friend Adele Abrahmson recalled in a letter, "flashing that amazing twinkle in his eye as he [dropped] one of his trademark bon mots."

Dr. Klima's family has established a Web site in memory of Dr. Klima at, where you can read more about his research and view letters and photos from family and friends.