Robert Jordan says very little specifically about Maiden Handtalk in the books of the Wheel of Time. We see a lot of “her fingers flashed…” but hardly anything precise. A single chapter in the sixth book, Lord of Chaos, tells us much of what we know about the language.
In the 19th Chapter, “Matters of Toh”, we find that new maidens are first taught the phrase, “I have toh.” In the same chapter, we see that a hooked little finger can add mockery to a statement.
“Liah signed back without pause. Very small, spear-sister.
Aviendha smiled gratefully for the missing hooked little finger that would have made the term mocking, used to women who gave up the spear and then tried to behave as if they had not.”
The term to which the narrative refers is “spear-sister”. We know that adding a hooked pinky for the sign for “spear-sister”, we are talking about a derisive term for a former Maiden who longs to still be a spear-sister in truth.
This scene shows us that Maiden Handtalk is a thorough language in which one can express complex ideas and even carry out heated arguments.
It also raises many questions. Can a hooked finger be added to any word or name to make it condescending? Is Maiden Handtalk (unlike American Sign Language) a word-for-word translation of English or does it have its own unique syntax and grammar?
As there is not much about the language itself in the books, I feel that I must form the language around the cultural framework that Robert Jordan has provided through context clues and the Big White Book.
As a military officer, I was taught to list facts and assumptions before beginning a mission to generate relevant questions. Then I can begin honestly crafting the language.
Facts from BWB: Chapter 20:
The Aiel live in a desert that they call the Three Fold Land.
Aiel warriors (men and women) wear brown, grey, beige clothes called cadin’sor.
Aiel Wisewomen wear brown, grey, beige skirts, shirts, and shawls.
High-ranking Aiel women wear jewelry while Maidens wear hardly any.
Maidens and male warriors keep their hair very short except for a tail at the nape of the neck.
Aiel are tall, tanned and light-haired with light colored eyes.
Aiel refuse to fight with swords, they only use weapons that have practical uses in every day life such as spears, knives, and bows.
Aiel live by a code of conduct with honor as the central tenant called Ji’e’toh.
Aiel allow and encourage their women to be strong warriors.
The Aiel are divided into clans.
The Aiel come from the Da’shain Aiel who served the Aes Sedai during the Age of Legends.
Da’Shain Aiel were devoted to pacifism even if it meant their own deaths.
Tuatha’an emerged from the Da’shain Aiel during the Breaking in order to find the Old Song and remain dedicated to the Way of the Leaf.
The Aiel cover their faces before killing-a tradition that originated after the Breaking and after the first kill by an Aiel upon renouncing the Way of the Leaf.
Morin was the first Maiden of the Spear, or Far Dareis Mai.
Maidens may not have children or be married.
Maidens are often used as scouts.
Blacksmiths, children, and new mothers cannot be made gai’shain.
Gai’shain dress in white and are not permitted to fight during their period of servitude (1year + 1 day).
All channelers become Wise Ones, but not all Wise Ones can channel.
It is socially unacceptable for a Wise One to take part in battle.
Each clan has a Roofmistress (chief’s wife) who can choose to turn away any visitor (or even her own husband).
They Aiel value knowledge and books.
Only the chief of a Clan owns a chair.
Polygamy is common among Aiel men. No woman has ever had multiple husbands.
Though the Da’shain Aiel were great singers, modern Aiel only sing into battle or at funerals.
Facts from LOC: Chapter 19:
To tell a Maiden that she will or should marry is very insulting (Lord of Chaos, Matters of Toh, 417)
“I have toh” is the first phrase a new Maiden learns (Lord of Chaos, Matters of Toh, 417)
Because of Morin’s stringent guidelines she promoted to other women, the Maidens of the Spear are the most capable and effective group of warriors among the Aiel, as the male warriors do not have such demands.
-Maidens are very proud and use “dancing the spears” to prove their worth among warriors and to their community.
Women are very powerful, perhaps equal to the Aiel men despite still having transitional gender roles.
That a Maiden would be offended by the suggestion of marriage shows that the Maidens are very proud and value their own honor over settling down with a man.
Maidens are able to communicate many of their ideas with only one hand or with very subtle movements so they can remain very still and maintain their weapons while scouting.
Is Maiden Handtalk word-for-word translated from English?
Why is the history of the Aiel so devastating to the current generation of Aiel?
How long ago was Maiden Handtalk created?
-Did it evolve from a language that existed among the Da’shain Aiel as a means of communicating silently?
-Was it created after the first few women became Maidens, living among men in tents?
-Was it born after Maidens became highly-skilled scouts?
Already I have a few ideas about several of the signs. I still feel that more research is necessary, however. I need to know as much as possible about the culture so I can accurately portray the signs. As I reread the series, I will update with more facts, assumptions, and questions.