Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
|Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language|
|120–150 deaf (2008)
many more hearing signers
As deafness is so frequent (4% of the population is deaf, compared to 0.1% in the United States)  and deaf and hearing people share a language, deaf people are not stigmatised in this community, and marriage between deaf and hearing people is common. There is also no "Deaf" culture or politics.
In 2004, the Al-Sayyid community numbered around 3,000 in total, most of whom trace their ancestry back to the time the village was founded, in the mid-19th century, by a local woman and an Egyptian man. Two of this founding couple's five sons carried a gene for nonsyndromic, genetically recessive, profound pre-lingual neurosensory deafness. The descendants of the founding couple often married their cousins due to the tribe's rejection by its neighbours for being "foreign fellahin". This meant that the gene became homozygous in several members of the family.
ABSL was first studied in the end of the 1990s by anthropologist Shifra Kisch, and came to worldwide attention in February 2005 when an international group of researchers published a study of the language in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The spontaneous emergence of the language in the last 70 years, which has developed a complex grammar without influence from any other language, is of particular interest to linguists for the insights it provides into the birth of human language.
Scholars study ABSL because it is the closest they can come to performing the "forbidden experiment" (a type of language deprivation experiment in which children are isolated before they are exposed to any language so that experimenters may observe their organic formation of a language). Since deaf people in Al-Sayyid cannot hear Arabic or Hebrew and they have not been exposed to any other sign languages, ABSL is a brand new language, uninfluenced by any other. In the early 1700s, a community similar to that of Al-Sayyid developed in Martha's Vineyard: A new sign language was formed without influence from any other language, and employed by deaf and hearing people alike. ABSL is still in its early stages, so researchers are observing the language as it develops.
ABSL shows a preference for subject–object–verb word order (e.g. "WOMAN CHILD FEED"), in marked contrast to the dialect of Arabic spoken by hearing members of the community (SVO), as well as Hebrew (SVO), classical Arabic (VSO), and the predominant sign languages in the region, Israeli Sign Language and Jordanian Sign Language. The authors of the study see ABSL as evidence for the human tendency to construct communication along grammatical lines. Researchers have detected various examples of abstraction in the language, a sure sign of grammatical development. For example, the sign for MAN is formed by the curling of the finger in the shape of a mustache, although Bedouin men no longer wear mustaches. However, the language does not currently contain "agreeing" verbs, as most known sign languages do, which may indicate that the language has more grammatical development in store.
Authors of the study (Mark Aronoff from State University of New York at Stony Brook, Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler from the University of Haifa and Carol Padden from the University of California, San Diego) also remarked on the speed with which a grammar emerged, with the SOV word-order emerging with the first generation of signers, as well as the language's continuing rapid development — the third generation is signing twice as fast as the first and is using longer sentences.
The community has been isolated not by geographic location but by social stigma. But now contact with the outside world is growing, as students are exposed to Israeli Sign Language and Jordanian Sign Language in schools, and community members are marrying outside the community.
- Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language reference at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
- Fox, Margalit (2008). Talking Hands. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
- One in Twenty Haaretz, 2 June 2004
- Kisch, Shifra. 2000. ‘Deaf discourse’: Social construction of deafness in a Bedouin community in the Negev. MA thesis, Tel Aviv University.
- Wade, Nicholas (February 1, 2005). "A New Language Arises, and Scientists Watch It Evolve". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-11.
- Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language Sign Language Research Laboratory, University of Haifa
- Sandler W, Meir I, Padden C, Aronoff M. (2005) The emergence of grammar: systematic structure in a new language, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.