Signs From The Desert: New Language Sheds Light on Linguistic Evolution How does language develop? A Bedouin community in Israel may help answer this question by offering a rare opportunity to study a new language that has emerged without influence from other languages. “Humans have been using language for tens of thousands of years, and there are no truly new languages ... World Beat
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World Beat  |   January 01, 2006
Signs From The Desert: New Language Sheds Light on Linguistic Evolution
Author Notes
  • Susan Boswell, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at sboswell@asha.org.
    Susan Boswell, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at sboswell@asha.org.×
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Hearing Disorders / Audiologic / Aural Rehabilitation / Augmentative & Alternative Communication / Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / International & Global / World Beat
World Beat   |   January 01, 2006
Signs From The Desert: New Language Sheds Light on Linguistic Evolution
The ASHA Leader, January 2006, Vol. 11, 12-17. doi:10.1044/leader.WB1.11012006.12
The ASHA Leader, January 2006, Vol. 11, 12-17. doi:10.1044/leader.WB1.11012006.12
How does language develop? A Bedouin community in Israel may help answer this question by offering a rare opportunity to study a new language that has emerged without influence from other languages.
“Humans have been using language for tens of thousands of years, and there are no truly new languages spoken today,” said Carol Padden, a linguist at the Center for Research in Language and a professor in the department of communication at the University of California, San Diego. “But the sign languages used by people who are deaf do not have the same histories as spoken languages. These are the only natural languages that can still be caught in the act of being born—if one is fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time.”
One rare window of opportunity to witness the birth and development of linguistic features exists in Al-Sayyaid community, one of the many Bedouin villages that populate the Negev desert in Israel. Within the last three generations, the village has created the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), a unique sign language that arose without influence of other spoken or signed languages and is used by many in the village.
The sign language grew out of the close-knit, consanguineous community that is now in its seventh generation and has 3,500 members after being founded 200 years ago by the Al-Sayyid Bedouins. Within the last three generations, 150 individuals who are deaf were born into the community, all descendants of the founders’ five sons, two of whom were deaf. The village has long been known to genetic researchers who have identified the nonsyndromic autosomal deafness as DFNB1, due to a GJB2 mutation, but has not been observed by researchers in linguistics or communication sciences.
“When we first came to Al-Sayyid, I expected to see a lot of gesture and miming, but I was immediately impressed with how sophisticated the language was,” Padden said. She is principal investigator on a research team studying ABSL. Other members of the team include Wendy Sandler, leading the research team and Irit Meir, both of the Sign Language Research Lab at the University of Haifa, Israel, and Mark Aronoff, of Stony Brook University, New York.
Birth of a Language
In the space of just one generation, a language has been born which conveys a wide range of information important to any community: information about social relations and activities, home construction methods, fertility, national insurance, and even folk remedies that have fallen out of use, Padden said.
But the most striking aspect of the new language was how quickly a stable grammatical structure emerged, providing a means for encoding the relationship between the do-er of the action, the action itself, and the recipient of the action.
ABSL encodes this information by using a word order that places the subject first, then object, then verb. This syntax is the most common word order in languages around the world, although it differs from the surrounding languages that ABSL users may have contact with, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Israeli Sign Language, Padden said.
“We have identified a significant basic trait of human language—the development of systematic syntactic structure very early in the course of human communication,” Padden said.
The language is also unique compared to other sign languages in that it is passed within families, from one generation to another. The community speaks Arabic, and many men are bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic. ABSL is the second language of the village, and many of the signers in the community are hearing and switch between languages when coming into contact with deaf individuals, who are fully integrated into the structure of the community.
“Because sign language is used widely in the village, both hearing and deaf children are exposed to it from an early age and learn it as a child learns the language of the home—through daily exposure,” Padden said.
With each successive generation, the language evolves. The first generation of signers, which included about 10 individuals, are all deceased. In studying the second generation of signers who are between 30 and 45 years old, the researchers have been able to determine that syntactic structures appear in the second generation of use.
“We also found little or no morphology in the second generation, which is in line with the development of early creoles [languages],” Padden noted. “Unlike syntax, which can appear early, morphology appears to take time to develop.”
The researchers have been collecting data and language samples from teenagers and children to see if there are additional language structures or variations that can be observed in the second generation.
“Children regularize language forms and introduce new innovations. With each generation of children, the language adds new structures and new forms,” Padden said. “We will then focus on the language of the youngest generation of signers to see how the language has developed since it was first created in the village.”
As the community becomes modernized and develops more contact with the outside world and the children who are deaf learn Israeli sign language in school, the flourishing use of ABSL may fade with time, Padden said. But its contribution to our understanding to linguistic evolution will not be lost.
For more information on the research, which was featured in the Feb. 15, 2005 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contact Carol Padden at cpadden@ucsd.edu.
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January 2006
Volume 11, Issue 1