Linguists made out well in the MacArthur Fellowships, with awards going to Carol Padden, a sign language linguist at UC-San Diego, and Jesse Little Doe Baird, a Wampanoag (or Wôpanâak) language preservationist. I interviewed Padden for a sign language story in 2005; I was writing for the New Scientist about a spontaneous sign language that had appeared in a group of Bedouins in Israel, and Padden was part of the team of scientists who went to study it.
As she told me, though, “I didn’t set off to do this project…and I didn’t know about the Bedouins before I went….I came to Haifa, and we were working on Israeli Sign Language at the time. It must have been 1998. We said, why don’t we take a car and go to the village. So we all piled in a car and went.” Once she met some people in the village who were using the sign language, “I realized this is really something I have never seen before. I went back to Haifa, and we said, let’s try to apply for some money.”
I asked her what it was like meeting other deaf people in that different of a context. “I go to international conferences. I’ve met deaf people from India, from Thailand, from Australia, New Zealand, all around the world, I may not have gone to all those places, but I’ve met people from all those different countries. There’s a sense of connecting with them, it’s like a diaspora thing.”
It’s also worth noting how I interviewed Carol. She speaks English clearly and precisely, so she delivered her answers in voice. But to “hear” me, my questions were transmitted via a sign language interpreter who was signing to her via video link. There wasn’t an intrusive delay; if she hadn’t said that was the system we were using, I wouldn’t have realized there was a human-technological interface in the middle.
Here’s the link to my piece, which begins from Padden’s perspective:
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 [Note: I realize the above contradicts this, but she checked the article, so the 2000 stands.] 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.”