Julie Sedivy of the University of Calgary (previously cited at LH here) has a post with the hyperbolic, but apparently not actually deceptive, title “The Unusual Language That Linguists Thought Couldn’t Exist”:
Languages, like human bodies, come in a variety of shapes—but only to a point. Just as people don’t sprout multiple heads, languages tend to veer away from certain forms that might spring from an imaginative mind. For example, one core property of human languages is known as duality of patterning: meaningful linguistic units (such as words) break down into smaller meaningless units (sounds), so that the words sap, pass, and asp involve different combinations of the same sounds, even though their meanings are completely unrelated.
It’s not hard to imagine that things could have been otherwise. In principle, we could have a language in which sounds relate holistically to their meanings—a high-pitched yowl might mean “finger,” a guttural purr might mean “dark,” a yodel might mean “broccoli,” and so on. But there are stark advantages to duality of patterning. Try inventing a lexicon of tens of thousands of distinct noises, all of which are easily distinguished, and you will probably find yourself wishing you could simply re-use a few snippets of sound in varying arrangements.
What to make, then, of the recent discovery of a language whose words are not made from smaller, meaningless units? Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a new sign language emerging in a village with high rates of inherited deafness in Israel’s Negev Desert. According to a report led by Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa, words in this language correspond to holistic gestures, much like the imaginary sound-based language described above, even though ABSL has a sizable vocabulary.
To linguists, this is akin to finding a planet on which matter is made up of molecules that don’t decompose into atoms. ABSL contrasts sharply with other sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL), which creates words by re-combining a small collection of gestural elements such as hand shapes, movements, and hand positions.
There is more, including a video, at the link; I have no idea how accurate the description of the language is, but it certainly sounds interesting. Thanks, David!