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Uncovering New Language in an Ancient Land

Uncovering New Language in an Ancient Land

Signing Illustration Background: The goal of all language scholars is to uncover the fundamental nature of human language. One way of doing this is to observe the emergence of a new language arising without influence from other languages. This is difficult to do, because humans have been using language for tens of thousands of years, and there are no new languages spoken today. However, the sign languages used by deaf individuals do not have the same histories as spoken languages. In fact, sign languages are the only natural languages that can still be studied in early stages of development.

Advance: Recently, NIDCD-supported scientists witnessed such an instance of emerging language. Researchers have been investigating a new sign language that arose in isolation in a Bedouin village in Israel with a very high proportion of individuals who are deaf, and their language has been caught in time to document its characteristics and structure just one generation after it first appeared. The researchers found, that in the space of just one generation, a language was born which conveys a wide range of information important to any community. Researchers have also discovered that this new language quickly developed a grammatical structure – specifically, a means for encoding the relations between the do-er of an action, the action itself, and the recipient of the action. Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) encodes this information through the order of words in a sentence, which is Subject, Object, and Verb (e.g., mother daughter feed, meaning ‘The mother fed the daughter’). This order was conventionalized by this small language community in a short time, and surprisingly, it differs from that of any of the other languages in the area – Arabic, Hebrew, or Israeli Sign Language. Researchers are exploring the roots of this new structure, its other characteristics, and how the language is changing with each new generation of signers.

Implications: Using this novel approach, a significant basic trait of human language has been identified, that is to develop systematic syntactic structure very early in the course of human communication. The results of this study will also be useful in designing basic natural communication systems for children with language disorders.

Citation: Sandler W, Meir I, Padden C, Aronoff M, The emergence of grammar: Systematic structure in a new language. PNAS 102, 2661-2665, 2005.

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