Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language

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Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
Native toIsrael
Native speakers
120–150 deaf (2008)[1]
Also used by many of the 3,500 hearing people of the village. Recognized as the local second language.
Language codes
ISO 639-3syy
ELPAl-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a village sign language used by about 150 deaf and many hearing members of the al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert of southern Israel.

As deafness is so frequent (4% of the population is deaf, compared to 0.1% in the United States)[2] 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 no separate deaf culture or politics either.[2]


In 2004 the Al-Sayyid community numbered around 3,000, most of whom trace their ancestry 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 owing to the tribe's rejection by its neighbours for being "foreign fellahin".[3] The gene became homozygous in several members of the family.

ABSL was first studied in the late 1990s by anthropologist Shifra Kisch[4] 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.[5] The spontaneous emergence of the language in the last 70 years and the development of a complex grammar in near-isolation are of particular interest to linguists for the insights it provides into the birth of human language.


Scholars study ABSL because, as 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.[clarification needed] ABSL is in its early stages, so researchers are observing the language as it develops.[2]

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 (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) see ABSL as evidence for the human tendency to construct communication along grammatical lines. They 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 continuing rapid development of the language: the third generation is signing twice as fast as the first and is using longer sentences.

Researchers have detected examples of abstraction in the language, a sign of grammatical development. For example the sign for "man" is formed by the curling of the finger in the shape of a moustache although Bedouin men no longer wear them.[6] 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.[2] In addition as of 2011 there was no distinction into a phonological structure.[7]

A unique feature of the language is that it currently lacks Duality of Patterning. Its words and meanings come from single gestures rather than combinations of smaller units of gestures.[8]

The community was isolated not by geography but by social stigma,[6] on several levels. Contact with the outside world is growing as pupils are exposed to Israeli Sign Language and Jordanian Sign Language in schools and community members are marrying outside the community.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ a b c d Fox, Margalit (2008). Talking Hands. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  3. ^ One in Twenty Haaretz, 2 June 2004
  4. ^ Kisch, Shifra. 2000. ‘Deaf discourse’: Social construction of deafness in a Bedouin community in the Negev. MA thesis, Tel Aviv University.
  5. ^ The emergence of grammar: Systematic structure in a new language, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Wendy Sandler, Irit Meir, Carol Padden, and Mark Aronoff
  6. ^ a b Wade, Nicholas (February 1, 2005). "A New Language Arises, and Scientists Watch It Evolve". New York Times. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  7. ^ Sandler, Wendy; Aronoff, Mark; Meir, Irit; Padden, Carol (May 2011). "The gradual emergence of phonological form in a new language". Nat Lang Linguist Theory. 29 (2): 503–543. doi:10.1007/s11049-011-9128-2. PMC 3250231. PMID 22223927.
  8. ^ Sedivy, Julie. "The Unusual Language That Linguists Thought Couldn't Exist". Nautilus. Retrieved October 2, 2020.

External links[edit]