[Paleopsych] NYT: A New Language Arises, and Scientists Watch It Evolve
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Tue Feb 1 16:04:46 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Science > A New Language Arises,
and Scientists Watch It Evolve
By NICHOLAS WADE
Linguists studying a signing system that spontaneously developed in
an isolated Bedouin village say they have captured a new language
being generated from scratch. They believe its features may reflect
the innate neural circuitry that governs the brain's faculty for
The language, known as Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, is used in a
village of some 3,500 people in the Negev desert of Israel. They are
descendants of a single founder, who arrived 200 years ago from Egypt
and married a local woman. Two of the couple's five sons were deaf, as
are about 150 members of the community today.
The clan has long been known to geneticists, but only now have
linguists studied its sign language. A team led by Dr. Wendy Sandler
of the University of Haifa says in The Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences today that the Bedouin sign language developed
spontaneously and without outside influence. It is not related to
Israeli or Jordanian sign languages, and its word order differs from
that of the spoken languages of the region.
Linguists have long disputed whether language is transmitted just
through culture, as part of the brain's general learning ability or is
internally generated with the help of genetically specified neural
circuits that prescribe the elements of grammar. Since children learn
to speak from those around them, there is no obvious way of separating
what is learned from what is innate except by observing a new language
being developed from scratch, something that happens very rarely.
Two special opportunities to study a new language and identify its
innate elements have recently come to light. One is Nicaraguan sign
language, a signing system developed spontaneously by children at a
school for the deaf founded in 1977 in Nicaragua. The other is the
Bedouin sign language being described today. Sign languages can
possess all the properties of spoken language, including grammar, and
differ only in the channel through which meaning is conveyed.
Two features of the Bedouin sign language that look as if they come
from some innate grammatical machinery are a distinction between
subject and object, and the preference for a specific word order, said
Dr. Mark Aronoff of Stony Brook University, an author of today's
report. The word order is subject-object-verb, the most common in
other languages. Dr. Aronoff said that the emergence of a preferred
order was the critical feature, and that it was too early to tell if
subject-object-verb is the particular order favored by the brain's
Linguists hope to learn more about the brain's language machinery by
identifying the features that the Bedouin and Nicaraguan sign
languages hold in common.
Dr. Ann Senghas, who has studied Nicaraguan sign language for 15
years, said she agreed with Dr. Aronoff that the subject-object
distinction and word order could be innate features.
Dr. Senghas, who is at Barnard College in New York, said the preferred
word order in Nicaraguan sign language kept changing with each cohort
of children. The language has now acquired the signed equivalents of
case endings, the changes used in languages like Latin to show if a
word is the subject or object of a sentence. Word order can be less
rigorous in languages that use case endings.
The Bedouin sign language, which has not yet acquired case endings, is
also under development. The third generation is signing twice as fast
as the first and is using longer sentences, said Dr. Carol Padden of
the University of California, San Diego, another author of the new
Dr. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, said the Bedouin
sign language was "unquestionably an important finding." Together with
the work on Nicaraguan sign language and other studies, he said, it
"suggests that the human mind has the motive and means to create an
expressive grammatical language without requiring many generations of
fine tuning, trial and error, and accumulation of cultural
The absence of case endings, or inflection, in the clan's language was
not surprising, Dr. Pinker said, because this form of change, known as
morphology to linguists, often takes many generations to develop. Both
morphology and syntax, the ordering of words in phrases, may use
"fundamentally the same mental machinery, which operates inside a word
in the case of morphology and inside a phrase in the case of syntax,"
Some researchers have speculated that language evolved first in the
form of a system of gestures, with sound taking over only later as the
preferred channel of communication. Evidence that gesture is still
deeply embedded in language can be seen in the fact that people
gesticulate even when on the phone.
Does the vigor and spontaneity of Bedouin and Nicaraguan sign
languages support the idea that a gesture-based language evolved
first? Dr. Senghas said the two languages "are not evidence about what
came first" but confirm that gesture is an integral part of language.
The clan sign language, which started only 70 years ago, is unusual in
being understood by the whole community, not just the deaf, since
hearing people use it to communicate with their deaf relatives. The
signs have already become symbolic: the sign for "man" is the twirl of
a finger to indicate a moustache, although men no longer wear them.
The Bedouin village is not geographically remote - it is near a large
McDonald's - but is socially isolated from other Bedouin who look down
on its origins. There are now more contacts with the outside world,
and the deaf children are being exposed to Israeli sign language in
school. The Bedouin sign language may not withstand modernization and
marriage outside the community. "This is a pretty short flowering,"
Dr. Aronoff said.
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