Studying Emerging Sign Languages.

Michael Erard, the journalist with a linguistics background who has often been linked to here at LH, has a typically knowledgeable and thoughtful essay for Mosaic about the quandaries involved in studying emerging sign languages:

Connie de Vos was sitting on her hands. It was 2006, her first stay in the Balinese village of Bengkala, and visitors had come every night to her house, sitting on the floor of the front patio, eating fruit- or durian-flavoured candies and drinking tea. About eight to ten people were there now, hands flitting in the shadows, chatting away in Kata Kolok, the local sign language: Where is the next ceremony? When is the next funeral? Who just died?

Kata Kolok was created in Bengkala about 120 years ago and has some special features, such as sticking out your tongue to add ‘no’ or ‘not’ to a verb. And unlike American Sign Language (ASL), in which people move their mouths silently as they sign, you also smack your lips gently, which creates a faint popping sound, to indicate that an action has finished.

“If you walk through the village at six, people start to take their baths, getting ready for dinner,” De Vos recalls. “You can hear this sound – pah pah pah – all through the village.”

A graduate student at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at the time, De Vos had come to Bengkala to be the first linguist to map Kata Kolok’s grammar and list all of its signs. At that time, she says, it was “kind of untouched”, having emerged in an isolated community with a relatively high number of deaf people. Like similar ‘village sign languages’ that were starting to be identified in the 2000s, it was rich research material. She knew that being first to describe it would be a feather in her cap.

But studying any phenomenon risks changing it.

I’m not going to try summarizing it; it is almost bound to make you rethink the subject. Erard has already gotten an LSA award, and he deserves another.

Comments

  1. A few times I’ve seen a claim (even here, I think) that some sign languages emerge completely independently of any existing language and represent a sort of universal human language inherent in human nature (or such stuff).

    But how is that possible?

    Surely the deaf children have parents, siblings, neighbors who can actually speak some language, but use signs of that emerging sign language to communicate with their deaf relatives?

    And then the grammar of that existing language will have to influence the new sign language?

  2. Not “a universal human language”, but a language emergent from universal human cognitive abilities. My understanding is that they start when you have a critical mass of deaf people, typically because of genetic mutations amplified in small isolated societies. The first generation invents a pidgin-like system of signs, with little grammatical structure. With time, it and subsequent generations regularize the language and build a grammatical structure for it.

    I don’t know if these languages start off entirely with deaf people communicating with each other, or with hearing people communicating with the deaf by means of signs. As far as I know the grammar of new sign anguages is generally unrelated to that of surrounding spoken languages.

  3. It’s an excellent article. I notice that he’s careful to distinguish deaf and Deaf. The former is physiological, the latter cultural.

    Ackerman’s statement, “Evidently, [Kegl] would rather kill the life prospects of these children, by leaving them unable to communicate with the outside world,” is as wrong, as backwards, and as offensive as similar statements used to kill spoken native languages and cultures through forced assimilation. Erard, rightly, doesn’t bother refuting it. Speakers make the point clearly throughout the article.

  4. The birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language, in the 1980s, is documented well enough that you can see answers to some of those questions — Wikipedia seems a reasonable overview. The teachers there were way behind the children; they didn’t even realize what was going on, much less drive the syntax from a Spanish model.

    French Sign Language was *attempted* to be ‘rationally’ developed by a French speaker on top of a native Deaf sign he encountered (and thought primitive), but “The resulting combination, an artificial language, was over-complicated and completely unusable by his students” [Wikipedia] and actual use rendered live FSL with very little relation to French. If that didn’t do it…

    “Village” sign languages that develop as an ongoing joint enterprise between (D/d)eaf and hearing people might be a place to look for spoken-language influence? Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language is well recorded I believe.

    (BTW I don’t think sign is what’s special — if you throw together a school of a hundred blind hearing children taught by ASL speakers, my guess is those children would develop a spoken language.)

  5. Another point I haven’t seen addressed.

    Not all children are born deaf, some of them become deaf later, when they already learned to speak or understand speech.

    Just one such kid and your “naturally emerging” sign language will be contaminated by spoken language.

  6. Reading the article makes me wonder, do linguists or anthropologists avoid speaking their own language for fear of tainting the language of the people they’re learning from? Is the concern that languages only a few generations old are so much more malleable than older ones? I would think once they have syntax — even still with individual variation — that they’re not going to go picking up a non-speaker’s, but I can’t argue with extra caution given incomplete knowledge. Guess I’m recapitulating the article, that economic and social disruption at scale are the language-killers.

    “Erard, rightly, doesn’t bother refuting it.” Yeah I appreciated that. Just extended a mild hope that perhaps she’d thought better by now.

  7. Surely the deaf children have parents, siblings, neighbors who can actually speak some language, but use signs of that emerging sign language to communicate with their deaf relatives?

    This is true, but my understanding is that if you only have one deaf child who is not being exposed to an existing sign language then what they’ll develop is not sign language but “home sign” – a small vocabulary of words with little to no grammar, used to communicate essentials but not much more. Sort of like a pidgin or like the speech of a young toddler.

    You need several people who need to communicate and – essentially! – can’t talk to anybody at all until they get this straightened out, and it works better if they’re all children because at some point the ability to learn language closes off, and if you don’t have even one by that point you never will. So that means either a village that happens to have a gene for deafness and not much exogamy, or a school for the Deaf.

    Not all children are born deaf, some of them become deaf later, when they already learned to speak or understand speech.

    Certainly, but I think going deaf in childhood is somewhat less common than being born deaf or becoming deaf at a very young age, before speech. I could easily be wrong, I suppose. More to the point, everybody tells me that the syntax of spoken languages never really works well when using sign languages. I don’t know if that’s universally true, but…

  8. > Ackerman’s statement, “Evidently, [Kegl] would rather kill the life prospects of these children, by leaving them unable to communicate with the outside world,” is as wrong, as backwards, and as offensive as similar statements used to kill spoken native languages

    Can’t the children be taught to communicate with the outside world in a way that respects their language and culture? What’s wrong with the children becoming bi- or multilingual? Lots of hearing children around the world are taught more widely spoken languages without that necessarily having anything to do with assimilation.

    I’m not a specialist, and I’m ready to be educated.

  9. Here’s Ackerman’s letter (per Wikipedia, she’s a champion writer of letters to the NYT.) It’s not clear if she’s addressing Kegl “choosing not to teach a more established sign system like ASL” (my paraphrase) or “not want[ing] to encourage the adoption of other idioms”. Either way, she lost me at the start of the letter, at Mengele.

  10. > Lots of hearing children around the world are taught more widely spoken languages without that necessarily having anything to do with assimilation.

    But that’s often the result. Why do so few young people nowadays speak Irish in the home, or Walloon, or Mohawk, or Yiddish*, or any of a thousand other languages you and I have never even heard of?

    Because they’re only taught the more widely spoken language in school, and because their parents decided it was easier to speak that language in the home to begin with rather than having them have to learn it at school for the first time, and when they grow up they’ll make the same choice.

    * Outside of Orthodox enclaves

  11. > Why do so few young people nowadays speak Irish in the home, or Walloon, or Mohawk, or Yiddish

    You can convince me that those young people would be better off speaking their heritage language, but I’m not sure you can convince me they’d be better off not knowing the dominant language.

    Anyway, how common is it for sign language users to know several sign languages? I can imagine it must be hard, since a higher priority would probably be to learn to read a spoken language, which for a deaf person must be like learning kanji (+kanbun for the syntax).

  12. > You can convince me that those young people would be better off speaking their heritage language, but I’m not sure you can convince me they’d be better off not knowing the dominant language.

    And this is a valid debate, which is one reason that languages are endangered all over the world, including sign languages (both in favor of more widely spoken sign languages and in favor of increasing oralism + implants).

    > I can imagine it must be hard, since a higher priority would probably be to learn to read a spoken language, which for a deaf person must be like learning kanji (+kanbun for the syntax).

    You might also consider why it’s such a low priority to teach Deaf children to read their own languages. (There are writing systems for sign languages. As near as I can tell, very few schools are interested in teaching them.)

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ackerman’s letter is offensively expressed, to put it mildly; still, the point is not stupid, and the point of view is very widely shared by parents who speak minority languages. Interest in minority languages as such is very much a niche thing (even among linguists), and Hatters are wildly unrepresentative of the population at large in this matter.

    The primary purpose of language is communication, and if not many people speak your language that, quite objectively, makes it much less useful as a language, the more so if the speakers are politically marginalised and weak. Attempts to preserve minority languages are just not going to work without addressing the political weakness. Conditions are rarely propitious for that, especially in places where small languages still survive.

    Languages are of course highly valuable culturally, but a similar political dynamic is at work, denying the value of minority cultures in any way other than as quaint folkloric amusement.

    It gives me no pleasure at all to point all this out, and I very much wish it weren’t so; but wishing doesn’t change the facts.

  14. I encountered a few deaf people in my fieldwork village in Papua New Guinea. Only one was deaf from birth and he was my roommate in the bachelor quarters I slept in. Here‘s a link to a blog copy of the letter I wrote to the professor who taught an introduction to sign language seminar that I took in grad school. It lists some of his home signs, which only one other person knew: my host brother who was usually working as the village motor vessel, but who slept in the same bachelor house when he was in the village.

  15. @Joel

    What a chequered background you have!

  16. David, the way I read it, Ackerman was criticizing Kegl for not actively encouraging the speakers she was working with toward shifting to a more widespread language.
    Clearly, as you say, many speakers of small languages see no added value in them over a more widespread language. (Peter Ladefoged wrote some 20 years go about this very issue, talking to a speaker of Dahalo who was quite happy to have his children abandon it.) Ultimately it’s a matter of giving people agency over their language, one way or the other.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ultimately it’s a matter of giving people agency over their language

    Exactly so; I would only add that that is inseparable from giving them agency over their lives in general. Which probably goes without saying.

  18. Always worth saying, though.

  19. There were only 200 or so speakers of Numbami, all from only one remaining village, when I did my fieldwork to record the language in 1976. Later generations have largely abandoned it in favor of Tok Pisin and English, which are far more useful. (Numbami heritage speakers are all over Facebook.) I can’t blame them. I’m one of the few old-timers who still remembers much Numbami and am trying to finish up a reference grammar of it before I’m gone. I’ve already compiled a free digital dictionary of Numbami-English and English-Numbami, and have published many articles about it and greatly enhanced its Wikipedia entry (in English). I’ve also set up a wordpress blog to share stuff I recorded during fieldwork or have found out from other sources, but it rarely gets any traffic. All I can do is document as much as I can of the moribund language.

    When I encountered my deaf Numbami roommate, I remember wondering whether he would benefit from being taken away from his relatives, with whom he could barely communicate, in order to join a larger community of New Guineans able to communicate among themselves in some kind of sign language, if there were such a community. I didn’t really see any good solution.

  20. Here’s Ladefoged’s paper. It’s an excellent piece of writing.

    (Interesting how I remembered it after reading it years ago.)

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