Alipur Sign Language

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Alipur Sign Language
Native to India
Region Karnataka
Native speakers
165 (date missing)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog alip1234[1]

Alipur Sign Language is a village sign language of India. It is spoken in the town of Alipur, Karnataka, which is a self-imposed Shia Muslim enclave with a high degree of congenital deafness. A substantial number of the hearing population of 20,000+ knows the language.[citation needed]

There are about 150+ Deaf people in this town of Karnataka State. Alipur has disproportionately large number of deaf people.

Last October, Mir Fazil Raza, a 49 year old former gram panchayat chief, helped set up the Alipur Unity Society, run by members of the deaf community. Raza helps translate between English and Sign Language. One of the first activities, which lasted the month of July, was conducting a fresh survey in the area to understand actual numbers of the deaf population, carried out by 15 members of the community.

The panchayat office says the 2011 census shows 17,625 people in the town, but that the actual figure is closer to 20,000. That puts the proportion of the deaf population here at about 0.75%, compared to government estimates for the national average: 0.41% (based on data from the 2011 census).

Generations of consanguineous marriages are believed to have led to this outsized population of people who cannot hear, the people believe. The tightly knit Shia community traces its forbearers to Iran, and remains particular about marrying within.

Some years ago, Raza learnt the Alipur Sign Language—the local dialect—later going on to learn the Indian Sign Language and other sign languages.

In 2009, a survey conducted by Raza, who acts as president and informal coordinator of the group, found 265 people with different “disabilities”. Of these, more than 120 people could not hear and speak. (Estimates range from 125 to 165.)

For a long time, Raza was vexed by this question: how can you prevent future generations from being born deaf? First, he got all of them blood tested, only to confirm what had been suspected: their profiles showed a high degree of marriage within the community. So, he started trying to encourage them to marry outside the village.

“But the result was the same,” he says. Then they tried screening wombs of pregnant women to understand the risks involved. “But even after that, children with disabilities continued to be born,” he says.

With no formal education and no special services, the community has suffered. They work as labourers, plumbers, electricians, or other jobs their fathers might have done. In 2014, Raza had to close the special school in the area after falling short of funds, a big setback for the community. But in October 2015, with the promise of funds, he hopefully started a school again. The earlier school was for deaf community members in particular, and had two special educators coming from Bengaluru every day.

Now, Raza conducts an awareness session of a kind through a one-hour class every evening. At least 25 people show up, and the focus is on religious education: all through signing. Before class, a small group invariably gathers near Raza’s television shop to watch the news—and ask questions later. The hope is they will be able to widen their understanding of the world.

Education is the key goal now, as Alipur residents make broader contacts with the world, working in jobs outside the town. A few children have moved to nearby cities such as Bengaluru and Mysuru to enrol at special schools.

In Alipur, over time, the relative isolation and the large deaf population has led to the development of a distinct signing system. Academia refers to these as village sign languages—as opposed to standardized forms used by the deaf community, such as American Sign Language or Indian Sign Language. Village sign languages are among a group of vanishing languages—recorded and written about as part of an endangered languages archive of SOAS, University of London.

Nora Ellen Groce, a University College London professor who studied Martha’s Vineyard for her PhD thesis and is an expert on the subject, says that one would have to study the genealogy and family histories of Alipur residents to get to the details and that there are a range of genetic tests now available, but “chances are high that the deafness in Alipur are based on consanguineous marriages”.

Groce, who wrote Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, explained that there are more than 400 different types of inherited deafness. “So, it’s not just one gene, it could be one of many,” she says.

The informal understanding is that marrying within such a relatively isolated community results in higher rate of deafness—seen from birth—but the district’s directorate of disabilities has no official record on this curious phenomenon and couldn’t specify what kind of deafness it is. K.V. Jyoti, the officer in charge at the directorate, says in their understanding, it was because of the marriage between relatives.

Sibaji Panda, a sign linguistics researcher who contributed to the SOAS archive, says he had analysed relationship patterns and found this to be the case. “Some geneticists had taken blood samples from the town, but I could not trace any publications from their findings to date,” he wrote in an email.

“There are hundreds of local/regional sign languages around the world and many are becoming ‘endangered’ as young deaf people go off to school and villages open to the outside world,” says Groce. “All languages have things to contribute, so it’s important that we don’t lose an important heritage like this.”

But in Alipur, the challenge is how to connect with a wider deaf community outside their immediate context. As their informal leader, Raza is keenly trying to help them make broader contacts through WhatsApp, Skype and travelling to other cities. He is also trying to teach them the Indian Sign Language, which is essential to be able to reach a wider world. During the conversation outside Raza’s shop, the men moved between both forms.

“We have to try and link with communities elsewhere,” says Raza. “Then they can also see the world and improve their knowledge.” He adds that about 80% of the deaf population could converse in both signing forms now.

Not just dialect, Alipur residents pride themselves on a distinct culture and a historic past. The town doesn’t have a police station, a liquor store or a cinema theatre. They live the life according to orders of Ruhollah Khomeini, former supreme leader of Iran. Alipur makes the replica of Iran, hence it is also known as "MINI IRAN IN KARNATAKA". All of this is noted with an air of pride. The Anjum-e-Jaffria, a trust, is an informal centre of government—the body administers various welfare needs, helps resolve disputes and influences the social life of the village.

Like residents of similar enclaves elsewhere, hearing residents of Alipur can speak four languages : Hindi, Urdu, Kannada and sign. Most can speak some rudimentary form of Alipur Sign Language—because invariably someone is related to a deaf person.

“In Alipur,” says Mohammed Ali, 30, a hearing resident, observing the group chat, “you have to learn how to sign. Or else, we will be silent and they will also be silent.”

Daily interactions suggest a fair degree of integration.

“The notion of disability and the communication barrier is less than in mainstream society,” says Panda. “Whatever severity may be there, no one uses hearing aid, though some have government gifted sets. The town hearing population is fully assimilated with them through sign language in various contexts.”

Still, deafness is a deeply experienced part of identity. Sahil Abbas, a part of the Alipur deaf society is married to a woman who can hear, but believes that for her, it is “like being married to a wall”.

“Maybe our children will be deaf,” he says. “But we don’t want them to suffer. We hope they can have better lives.”

Syed Sardar Mehadi knows one thing: he will only marry a deaf girl. Syed is 22 years old, and has had a hearing impairment since birth.

Syed’s mentor and the town’s informal leader of the deaf community, Mir Fazil Raza, 49, is helping translate between English and sign language.

“Syed only wants to marry a deaf girl,” says Raza. But the course of love is complicated. “His parents are totally opposed to that.

The town has not seen a single marriage between a deaf man and woman so far, because they believe this would result in their children being born deaf. But Syed, whose parents are opposing such a union, is determined.

“With a deaf person I feel so good,” he says. “It’s something I can’t feel otherwise.”


Alipur, Karnataka

  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Alipur Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.