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February 3, 2005

Origin speaks for itself

From: Newsday, NY - Feb 3, 2005

Stony Brook linguist finds village language in Israel that grew in isolation, showing how communication is born


February 3, 2005

Within an isolated desert community in southern Israel, a Stony Brook University researcher and his colleagues have documented the spontaneous birth of a new language, the first one believed to have emerged entirely on its own.

Created by a small group of deaf villagers within the past 70 years, the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, or ABSL, may offer linguists an exceedingly rare window into how the mind builds languages from scratch, whether spoken or not.

"Why is this so fascinating? It's because this is the first documented case of a language that's arisen pretty much without any external influence," said Mark Aronoff, a Stony Brook University linguist who co-authored the study, appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "And that language has developed a very clear structure within a very short period of time."

Within the Bedouin village of about 3,500, ABSL is the main form of communication for about 150 deaf inhabitants who trace their ancestry to two of the village founders' sons. An additional 150 Arabic-speaking villagers use the sign language daily to communicate with deaf friends and family.

Remarkably, the sign language's fairly strict grammatical structure solidified within one generation of use.

"What's most striking about it is that it's almost completely different from the spoken language of the village, which is a dialect of Arabic," Aronoff said. Unlike the typical subject-verb-object order of spoken Arabic, Hebrew, and English, as in "John saw the dog," ABSL signers use a subject-object-verb order more reminiscent of Japanese, as in "John dog saw."

In another key difference from its neighbors, ABSL places all adjectives behind nouns they describe, as in "dog big." The study, led by Wendy Sadler at the University of Haifa, found that inhabitants use the language to tell elaborate stories and discuss topics as diverse as social security benefits, wall construction and fertility.

Other researchers have documented the births of spoken languages like creole and pidgin, albeit ones derived from existing languages. And Nicaraguan Sign Language has blossomed among deaf students, though primarily in a school, rather than a family setting.

Ann Senghas, a psycholinguist at Columbia University who is involved in the Nicaraguan research, said she was struck by how both of the new sign languages established fairly rigid word orders very early on. By comparing them, she said, researchers may glean clues about how all languages may form, evolve and prosper.

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