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May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2


May 2005
Signing in the Negev


A small Bedouin tribe in Israel’s Negev Desert is giving scholars a rare peek at the birth and evolution of language.

In the last three generations the Al-Sayyid village has, without outside influence, created a unique sign language. The Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is used both by hearing and deaf members of the tightly-knit community, report researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When we first came to Al-Sayyid, I was impressed immediately by how sophisticated the language was. This is not an ad hoc, spur-of-the-moment communication,” says Carol Padden, ’83, UCSD professor of communication, who coauthored the study with colleagues from Stony Brook University in New York and the University of Haifa in Israel.

Padden says although it arose only 70 years ago, ABSL has already developed a distinct syntax, evident in the way native signers tell stories and describe actions. Sentences in ABSL follow a Subject-Object-Verb order (Jill Jack kisses). Significantly, this SOV word order differs from that found in other languages of the region, including Arabic and Hebrew.

“The grammatical structure of the Bedouin sign language shows no influence from either the dialect of Arabic spoken by hearing members of the community or the predominant sign language in the surrounding area, Israeli Sign Language,” Padden says. “Because ABSL developed independently, it may reflect fundamental properties of language in general.”

What distinguishes ABSL from other new languages that have been reported and studied, such as Creoles and Nicaraguan Sign Language, is that it grew within a socially stable, existing community, arising spontaneously without any apparent external influences.

The 3,500 strong Al-Sayyid Bedouin group was founded when a man migrated from Egypt 200 years ago and married a local woman. Two of the founder’s five sons were born deaf and many villagers carry a recessive gene for deafness. About 150 congenitally deaf individuals have been born in the last three generations. They are fully integrated members of the community, and their sign language is generally recognized as the village’s second language.

“ABSL is transmitted within families across generations, and children learn it without explicit instruction,” says Padden, who was also born deaf into a deaf family.

A linguist by training, Padden has written extensively about sign language and deaf culture. “ABSL,” she says, “is the best analogue we have for studying how any new language is born and grows.”

— Inga Kiderra




UCSD Department of Communication

Carol Padden, M.A. '81, Ph.D. '83

Center For Reserach in Language

American Sign Language Program

New language: A deaf villager from Al-Sayyid uses the Bedouin Sign Language