Unique sign language in Israel

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Aug 24 19:50:05 UTC 2007

An Israeli town where people talk with their hands--literally.

Thursday, August 23, 2007 12:01 a.m.

In the southern Israeli desert of Negev lies a community called
Al-Sayyid. Inhabited by approximately 3,500 Bedouin, an Arab nomadic
tribe that settled the area about 200 years ago, the village may seem
rather humdrum at first glance. That is, until you see the villagers
interacting--by making signs with their hands. In Al-Sayyid, at least
150 residents are deaf, a rate 50 times greater than that of Israel's
general population. As it happens, a recessive gene for profound
deafness--traced back to sons of the "founding" couple--has made its
way, through large families and genetic probabilities, into an
ever-widening gene pool. Thus over three generations an
extraordinarily high number of deaf children have been born to
Al-Sayyid's villagers.

Of necessity, a special means of communication has sprung up: Nearly
all the village's residents, hearing and deaf alike, are fluent in a
sign language unique to Al-Sayyid. Margalit Fox's "Talking Hands," in
part, describes this language and chronicles the work of a group of
linguists who were allowed by townspeople to study it. Though rare,
such "signing villages" are not unheard of. Certain conditions are
conducive to their forming. "First," Ms. Fox writes, "you need a gene
for a form of inherited deafness. Second, you need huge families to
pass the gene along." The practice of polygamy, together with the
habit of marriage among cousins, speeds the rate of genetic spread.
Al-Sayyid has met all these conditions.

As it happens, Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, once
met at least the first two. From the middle of the 17th century to
roughly the turn of the 20th, nearly everyone on the island used a
distinctive sign language that was (mostly) born there. Nora Ellen
Groce detailed its history in "Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language"
(1985). By the time Ms. Groce began her research, signing on the
island had ceased, since the last deaf person had died more than two
decades before. Her book is a kind of oral history, with colorful
interviews of older islanders who remembered the signing days.

By contrast, Ms. Fox, a science reporter for the New York Times,
visits Al-Sayyid when it is still in a signing mode. She offers a few
humorous anecdotes but prefers to concentrate on the subject of how
languages evolve. She devotes relatively brief space to her account of
village residents' interacting with the four linguists charged with
documenting Al-Sayyid's sign language. She devotes much more to a
history of linguistics and of sign language in America and the world.
For example, she discusses an international conference for deaf
educators in Milan that in 1880 declared "oralism" as the best way to
integrate deaf people into general society. It was a bad idea that
enjoyed high status among Western elites for many years. To show its
wrong-headedness, Ms. Fox relates a rhetorical question posed to her
by a linguist. Suppose an American were placed alone in a glass,
soundproof booth in the middle of Japan. How on earth would he learn
to speak Japanese?

The rhetorical answer: with the greatest difficulty. Learning a spoken
language requires hearing it or learning it through instruction in a
language one does understand. For the deaf, sign language may serve
that intermediary function, but it must come first. After that Milan
conference, it would take nearly 80 years before teaching primarily
American Sign Language (ASL) to the deaf was accepted practice again
in the U.S. and 90 years for linguists to come to a consensus that ASL
is indeed a full-fledged language.

Linguists now believe that sign languages are processed in our minds
in much the way that spoken languages are--and follow a similar
evolutionary pattern. (This similarity is one reason why the study of
sign languages is a growing subfield in linguistics.) The third
generation of signers in Al-Sayyid uses its language with much greater
speed than the first and with much greater structural complexity.
Spoken language shows a kindred evolution.

We are well past the point in history where it is possible for a new
spoken language to develop without the influence of other languages.
What is so fascinating about Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL),
as the village's sign language is officially called, is that it was
born with no apparent influence from any language at all. A case in
point: The spoken languages of the region--Hebrew and the local Arabic
dialect--favor sentences with a subject-verb-object sequence. (English
does too.) ABSL favors subject-object-verb.
A close look at a young language--tracing its structure and
developmental arc--is rarely possible in the modern age. Hence the
appeal of studying ABSL. The language may well give scholars special
insight into the workings of the mind and the intricacies of its
linguistic faculties. There are other signing villages in the world
today, but none with languages so fully developed as Al-Sayyid's.

Unfortunately, there isn't much time. Israeli Sign Language (ISL)--an
entirely different language--threatens to encroach on ABSL and,
inevitably, to "corrupt" its distinctiveness. But Al-Sayyid's
residents know, as Ms. Fox explains, that learning ISL will give their
children a better chance to thrive in the modern world, not least in
the world just outside the village. Over time, it is unclear whether
older residents, nurtured on a purer form of ABSL, will understand the
younger ones. For now, at least, a unique sign language integrates
everyone into a single community, whether they can hear or not.

Mr. Philips is The Wall Street Journal's assistant Leisure & Arts
features editor. You can buy "Talking Hands" from the OpinionJournal


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