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A Language is Born, New Scientist, October 22, 2005

WHEN Carol Padden first visited Al-Sayyid, a small Bedouin village in the Negev desert in Israel, her expectations were not high. Padden, a linguist at the University of California, San Diego, first went there in 2000 to study a newly discovered sign language. She expected to find something rather unsophisticated – an isolated group of deaf people who had invented a “home sign”, a crude set of gestures and signs to allow them to communicate with each other.

But when she met her first signers, she realised at once that the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language had made the leap beyond home signing. The signers were confident, quick and expressive, not slow and stumbling as you would expect from home signers. Both deaf and hearing villagers were using the sign language extensively for a range of sophisticated purposes, from relaying folk remedies to arguing about health insurance. “It’s amazing how much they can accomplish with a language still so new,” Padden says. “You don’t have to wait until the language develops a full grammar.”

An evolving sign language like ABSL offers linguists a rare opportunity to study a new language as it forms. What’s more, because deaf people invented it with no outside influence, ABSL offers a window on the innate linguistic creativity of the human brain. “Their language is untainted and it developed spontaneously,” says Wendy Sandler, a sign language expert at the University of Haifa in Israel, who started a project to study the language. “These factors are very exciting.”

Some researchers even hope that studying a language like this will help resolve some fundamental questions about the evolution and nature of all human language, and about the human mind itself.

Back in the 1960s, Noam Chomsky proposed that the rules of language are hard-wired into our brains, sparking an argument that has raged ever since. One line of evidence that linguists such as Derek Bickerton of the University of Hawaii have turned to is the study of new languages. When it comes to spoken language, that means the pidgins and creoles that have sprung up around the world in the past few centuries. Pidgins are simplified languages made up when two groups that have no shared language first come into contact, whereas creoles are fully fledged new languages that arise from a pidgin once young children are exposed to it.

In the 1980s, Bickerton argued that creoles develop within a generation, based largely on his study of Hawaii Creole. His view is that young children who are exposed to a pidgin impose a more complex grammar on it – thanks to their innate, Chomskyan talent for language. That means, according to Bickerton’s “language bioprogram hypothesis”, that studying the properties of creoles should reveal which aspects of language are innate.

Critics say Bickerton has got it wrong, and that the grammar of creoles derive from the parent languages rather than being devised by children – meaning that creoles tell us nothing about the innateness of language. Hence the interest in sign languages. Sign languages have the same properties as spoken languages. And where they have been created from scratch by deaf people who have never learned a spoken language, they should reveal more about our “language bioprogram” – if there really is one.

Home sign languages invented by deaf children and their parents are common but remain very basic. But in a few places where rates of hereditary deafness are high, more sophisticated “village sign languages” have developed . Many of these languages, like the one used by residents of Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, in the 19th century, died out before being studied. Luckily, village sign languages have turned out to be much more common than previously thought, says Ulrike Zeshan, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Nine have been documented so far, including Kata Kolok in Bali, Adamorobe in Ghana, Urubu-Kaapor in northern Brazil, Providencia Island sign language in Colombia, Yucatec Mayan in Mexico, Ban Khor in rural northern Thailand and an as yet unnamed village sign language in Surinam. “They keep popping up,” Zeshan says. But they are just starting to attract the notice of linguists.

Among these village sign languages, two stand out because they are young and still evolving. One is the sign language created, without any help from teachers, by children at a deaf school in Nicaragua, starting in the late 1970s. The rapid development of the language has been heralded by some as proof of the “language instinct”.

But the language has evolved in highly unusual circumstances: it is taught by older children at the school to each new class of about 30 students, rather than being passed down naturally from parents to children. This might have influenced its properties, meaning it might not be the best showcase of how a new language forms.

Hence the excitement about the second example, ABSL. “It is the best case so far of a new language that has developed in isolation,” says Mark Aronoff, a linguist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “And it promises to provide insight into the fundamental nature of human language.”

Its story begins about 200 years ago, when Al-Sayyid, a Bedouin from Egypt, settled in the Negev. Three generations later, his descendants began to marry each other’s cousins, a common practice in Bedouin families to protect land ownership.

But two of Al-Sayyid’s sons carried a recessive gene for deafness. Because of the intermarriage, the first deaf children, about 10 of them, were born early last century. Stuck in the desert together, they did something very human: they invented basic hand signs and gestures, and passed them on to their children.

Since then ABSL has blossomed into a complex language. It is widely used by the 3500 villagers, not just the 80 or so who are deaf. “I’ve never seen so many hearing people who sign,” says Padden, who is deaf herself. “On one visit, a little girl came running toward us, not knowing who we were. She started to sign animatedly to us. Her expectation was that everybody knows sign language.”

Since 2000, Padden has been studying ABSL with Sandler, Irit Meir, also at the University of Haifa, and Aronoff. They have been able to see how ABSL is developing over the generations. In fact, because it has so few speakers, it is even possible to trace which speaker comes up with which innovation and see how it spreads among the group.

In general, the younger signers sign faster and put more words into their phrases. They are also taking signs that originated as iconic gestures and making them more arbitrary by simplifying the way they sign them.

While older ABSL signers sign “man” by making the gesture of a moustache twirl, among younger signers it’s just a twist of the forefinger to the upper lip. And the sign for “woman”, which used to be two fingers tracing lines on the forehead (probably because Bedouin women were tattooed on their faces) now does not touch the face at all. A similar process happened in Nicaraguan sign language, says Ann Senghas of Barnard College at Columbia University, New York, whose team has been visiting the school there each year to study the language’s development.

Sandler and her colleagues were surprised to find that ABSL has one notable characteristic: like most languages it has a strict word order (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , DOI: 10.1073/pnas. 0405448102). English is a subject, verb, object language, or SVO. In a sentence such as “the man kicks the ball”, the verb comes between the subject and the object. In an SOV language, a speaker would say, “The man the ball kicks”. Most languages are either SVO or SOV, though some have other ways of indicating who is doing what to whom, such as changes in word endings known as inflections. A highly inflected language such as Russian has a less rigid word order than, say, Chinese languages, which have very little inflection.

Home-grown language

Significantly, ABSL appears to have a word order that is different from the languages in the surrounding area. It is an SOV language, whereas Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language are SVO languages, and colloquial Arabic a VSO language. This confirms that ABSL is indeed a local invention, free of outside influence.

Could the SOV word order reflect some biologically innate preference? Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago, who has been studying 14 home signers in the US, Taiwan, Turkey and Spain, says she has also found a preference for a particular word order among home signers that cannot be down to the spoken language in the environment. “Home sign isn’t quite handed down. It’s invented anew each time.”

And each time it is invented, it seems to be created in much the same way. As in ABSL, home signers also develop a stable word order, Goldin-Meadow says, which is almost always OV (home signers tend to omit the subject).

She has also done related experiments in which she has asked hearing native English speakers to put some pictures in order. Each picture corresponds to a subject, an object and a verb. Goldin-Meadow says they prefer to order them as SOV.

Yet whether this preference is a reflection of an innate linguistic trait, or merely of a broader cognitive one, remains to be proved. “To answer that question, you have to look at things beyond language,” she says. “You have to show that it’s specific to language.”

The ABSL researchers also stop short of drawing broad conclusions. “We don’t make any claims about that special order,” Aronoff says. “What’s special is that there is word order, not that there is this kind of word order.”

The first Nicaraguan signers also developed a fixed word order, says Senghas. But within 10 years, it became less rigid as the schoolchildren developed inflected signs.

A signer can add layer upon layer of meaning by the direction and speed of a sign, the accompanying facial expressions and the direction of their gaze. For example, in many sign languages, the sign for the verb “give” is made in different directions, depending on who is doing the giving and who is receiving.

Most sign languages have richly inflected signs that allow the word order to be more flexible. But in ABSL the signs are simpler, and verbs are not inflected to help distinguish the subject and object. For instance, the subject of the verb “give” is always the speaker, whether or not they are doing the giving.

Without inflections, a sentence such as “Boy girl kiss” could mean either a boy kissing a girl or a girl kissing a boy. But with the adoption of a set word order, as ABSL has, there is no ambiguity. The rapid adoption of a set word order is “a rare empirical verification of the proclivity of the human mind for structuring a communication system along grammatical lines”, Sandler and her colleagues suggest.

But the fact that ABSL has not developed inflections surprised the researchers. “All of us expected to find some morphology, based on our previous work,” says Meir.

It surprises Bickerton too. Historical records from places such as Surinam, Mauritius and Hawaii suggest that creoles typically develop characteristics such as verb tense markers by the second generation of speakers at the latest, he says. “Although ABSL ought to be a full-fledged language by now, since it’s been going for two or three generations, it still looks like a pidgin, which is a language spoken only by adults. This is baffling.”

The reason may be that relatively few people speak ABSL. Complexity increases in a language depending on how many people learn the language and each conversation that takes place in it, says Senghas. Nicaraguan sign changes rapidly because 30 children a year learn it; home sign languages never change because they are learned once and conversations are few. ABSL may be right on the threshold.

The fact that a certain critical number of speakers seems to be necessary for a fully fledged language to evolve could be seen as a blow for those arguing that language is innate. “If you take a very orthodox Chomskyan view,” Sandler points out, “you hardly need more than one brain.”

But the limits of home sign and the relatively slow development of ABSL compared with Nicaraguan sign language suggest that one brain is not enough, that a larger critical mass is needed to push a language to where it acquires complexities such as verbal inflections. It is a powerful reminder that the origins of language lie as much in human groups as in human brains, a combination that linguists have not really tackled. It could yet provide some answers to the question, as Sandler puts it, “How many brains does it take to make a language?”

The researchers hope to learn much more as ABSL evolves. But its future is a sensitive topic. The third generation of ABSL signers already appear to be influenced by Israeli Sign Language, which some of them learn in school. Should the children be encouraged to learn a more widely used sign language, even if it dooms the fragile home-grown one? For their part, the Al-Sayyid Bedouin seem unconcerned. “They think of their language as almost ordinary,” Padden says. “They don’t set it apart from the flow of everyday life and regard it as special or in need of protection.”

Michael Erard is a writer based in Austin, Texas