BIRTH OF A NEW LANGUAGE.

A NY Times article by Nicholas Wade describes “a signing system that spontaneously developed in an isolated Bedouin village”:

The language, known as Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, is used in a village of some 3,500 people in the Negev desert of Israel. They are descendants of a single founder, who arrived 200 years ago from Egypt and married a local woman. Two of the couple’s five sons were deaf, as are about 150 members of the community today.
The clan has long been known to geneticists, but only now have linguists studied its sign language. A team led by Dr. Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa says in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today that the Bedouin sign language developed spontaneously and without outside influence. It is not related to Israeli or Jordanian sign languages, and its word order differs from that of the spoken languages of the region.

The article goes on to make comparisons with Nicaraguan Sign Language (see my entry for a couple of excellent comments by Leila Monaghan) and makes some dubious assertions about the implications for “innate grammatical machinery”; see Mark Liberman’s Language Log post for appropriate skepticism (focused on the reporter, not Mark Aronoff, the quoted linguist). My thanks to dinesh rao for the link!

Comments

  1. Michael Farris says:

    I haven’t read the article in question and I guess this is language/linguistics story of the moment (better than “endangered” languages). But there’s nothing new here. When I was doing sign language research I definitely had the idea that these small sign languages really are all over the developing world. Anytime you get heriditary(sp?) deafness in a face-to-face community (or enough hearing impaired people who interact with each other on a regular basis) you start to get a sign language. It takes a few generations to stabilize past the homesign level and events may mean that the language disappears before it fully stabilizes (or after it’s stabilized) but the process is pretty well established, at least it seemed to be in things I was reading over 10 years ago and which weren’t new at all then.

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