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February 7, 2005

Syntax of a Pristine Language

From: Washington Post, DC - Feb 7, 2005

Language is a characteristic human creation. It is a way of both interpreting the world and imposing order on the world. Consequently, some linguists and psychologists view grammar as a peep-hole into the workings of the human mind.

The problem is few opportunities arise to study a language that is "uncorrupted" by contact with other tongues or is not the product of cultures mingling, such as Creole. A group of American and Israeli researchers, however, think they have found one such pristine language.

It is called Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. It is used by many of the 3,500 members of a community of tribesmen in the Negev desert founded about 200 years ago.

Inbreeding over seven generations has led to a large number of people who are born deaf. The deaf Al-Sayyid Bedouins are full members of the tribe, bear no stigma and usually have hearing spouses. The sign language apparently developed about 70 years ago when the number of deaf tribesmen began to rise. Those people had no access to any language unless they invented one for themselves. Today, all deaf members and many hearing ones are fully fluent in their own sign language.

Carol Padden of the University of California at San Diego and colleagues at Stony Brook University in New York and the University of Haifa in Israel analyzed the language's structure and discovered that the overwhelming syntax was subject-object-verb.

A sentence consisting of "Bob Mary kiss" -- which could theoretically mean either "Bob kisses Mary" or "Mary kisses Bob" -- unambiguously means "Bob kisses Mary" because of the word order. The researchers also found that modifiers such as adjectives, numbers, or negatives always follow nouns and never precede them.

Interestingly, those basic rules governing how to make sense of a string of words were different in the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language from all its neighboring tongues -- dialectical Arabic, classical Arabic, Hebrew, and Israeli Sign Language.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, determined the structure of sentences based on pauses in hand gestures and facial cues, as well as translations provided by interpreters.

Languages can have other ways of denoting who is the actor, and who is the recipient of action, in a sentence. These include cases for nouns, and subject-object agreement. However, in the absence of such refinements, word order is key.

The subject-object-verb structure in the Bedouin sign language is the most common word order found in languages generally. There is also evidence it is the structure found in the earliest languages.

The appearance of such a clear-cut rule early in the evolution of a language "is rare empirical verification of the unique proclivity of the human mind for structuring a communication system along grammatical lines," the authors write.

-- David Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company