A Surprising New Sign Language.

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!


  1. I think the comments under the article give the right kind of nuance. It’s not as a big a deal as the title makes it sound. In fact, it is precisely the kind of language linguists thought could have existed in the early stages of the evolution of language (not that different from various other non-auditory symbolic systems). It is a really inteteresting case study but not one that really challenges any of the standing orthododoxies.

    Things like not finding minimal pairs in “150 words of elicited vocabulary (in this study and Israel’s study)—hundreds of elicited sentences, and numerous narratives and conversation” make me think that this study is not the last or the definitive word on this issue, either.

    The language does not seem to be that different from a pre-radical version of the Chinese script. But it also seems that it is going in a predictable direction: “in third generation signers with a deaf parent, certain indications that the signs are losing iconicity and gaining articulatory regularity have caught our eye.”

    So having read both the reporting and the original article, I think that on balance the reporting is irresponsibly sensationalist and does more harm than good to the public awareness of linguistic issues. There many more common myths this story could help undermine (such as that you need minimum complexity for complex human communication or linguistic sophistication to develop a new language). I doubt anyone cares about the future of the double articulation axiom.

  2. Thanks for that informed explanation; I’m afraid I’ve assimilated the internet command “Never read the comments” to a perhaps excessive degree, so I didn’t even scroll down.

  3. It is interesting that it is apparently easier to learn and process different patterns of a limited set of sounds than to multiply the number of meaningful sounds.

    Also, I wonder if sign language can be equated to spoken language, or used to generalize about language. Are sounds and gestures the same in brain processing?

  4. In addition, this is nothing new: ABSL was already being discussed in Evans and Levinson 2009, linked here earlier. And it’s clear that at that point, Pinker & Jackendoff in their response (p. 37) were taking the principle of duality of patterning very seriously indeed: it certainly was a “standing orthodoxy” six years ago at least.

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