New Language Points To Foundations Of Human Grammar
By Inga Kiderra
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.
Bedouin Sign Language signer telling a story.
Credit: Shai Davidi, Sign Language Research Lab, University of Haifa.
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.
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.
support the idea that word order is one of the first features
of a language, and that it appears very early," Padden
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.
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.
The research is being
conducted through the Center for Research in Language at UCSD
and the Sign Language Research Lab at the University of Haifa.
It is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Contact: Inga Kiderra,