How is a language born? What are its essential elements? Linguists are gaining new insights into these age-old conundrums from a language created in a small village in Israel's Negev Desert.
The Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), which serves as an alternative language of a community of about 3,500 deaf and hearing people, has developed a distinct grammatical structure early in its evolution, researchers report, and the structure favors a particular word order: verbs after objects.
The study – the first linguistic analysis of a language arising naturally with no outside influence – is being published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Jan. 31 to Feb. 4.
The authors are Mark Aronoff from Stony Brook University, Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler from the University of Haifa and Carol Padden from the University of California, San Diego.
By watching native signers tell stories and describe actions, the researchers found that the language goes beyond a list of words for actions, objects, people, characteristics and so on, to establish systematic relations among those elements. Sentences in ABSL follow a Subject-Object-Verb order, such as in "woman apple give," rather than the Subject-Verb-Object order found in English – or, more significantly, in other languages in the region.
"The grammatical structure of the Bedouin sign language shows no influence from either the dialect of Arabic spoken by hearing members of the community or the predominant sign language in the surrounding area, Israeli Sign Language," said study coauthor Carol Padden, professor of communication at UC San Diego. "Because ABSL developed independently, it may reflect fundamental properties of language in general and provide insight into basic questions about the way in which human language develops from the very beginning."
ABSL arose in the last 70 years and is now in its third generation of use. Remarkably, the fixed word order of ABSL emerged within a generation after the inception of the language.
"Our findings support the idea that word order is one of the first features of a language, and that it appears very early," Padden said.
The research also supports the notion that languages can and do evolve quickly.
"When we first came to Al-Sayyid, I expected to see a lot of gesture and miming, but I was impressed immediately by how sophisticated the language was. This is not an ad hoc, spur of the moment communication. It is a complex language capable of relating information beyond the here and now," said Padden.
Although other new languages such as creoles and Nicaraguan Sign Language have been reported, their unusual social and linguistic environments were not characteristic of typical languages, the study authors observe. Creoles are the product of interactions between existing languages. And Nicaraguan Sign Language, the creation of a group of deaf children, evolved in a school setting.
What distinguishes ABSL is that it grew – as presumably did most languages of the world – within a socially stable, existing community.
The Al-Sayyid village was founded about 200 years ago and today numbers some 3,500 members. Approximately 150 individuals with congenital deafness, all of them descendants of two of the founders' sons, have been born into the community in the past three generations.
A pattern of marrying within the village is the norm. Combined with deafness that is recessive – recessive traits manifest only when two carriers have a child – the marriage practice has ensured that deaf people are well distributed throughout the group's population.
As a consequence, the researchers say, many of the signers in the community are hearing, a highly unusual situation for a sign language but one that can be predicted in a tightly-knit group which fully integrates its deaf members.
"It is a language of the entire community, both hearing and deaf ," said Padden, who, with Tom Humphries, is co-author of the newly published Inside Deaf Culture (Harvard University Press, 2005). "ABSL is transmitted within families across generations, and children learn it without explicit instruction. It is the best analogue we have for studying how any new language is born and grows."
The Al-Sayyid group, the researchers point out, in some ways resembles the 19th-century whaling community in Massachusetts that produced the now-extinct Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. But that language died out before it could be recorded.
For the present study, the researchers focused on the second generation of ABSL signers. Further work will document the evolution of the language in the third generation.
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