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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Signs of Genius

Carol Padden laughs that her college-aged daughter may not think of her as a "genius," but that's a label the UC San Diego sign-language scholar may well have to live with.

She is a winner of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a "genius" grant.

Padden, Ph.D. '83, and a professor of communication at UCSD, is a linguist whose research focuses on the unique structure and evolution of sign languages—how they differ from spoken language and from each other—and on the specific social implications of signed communication.

The award comes with $500,000 in no-strings-attached support for five years. Recipients are nominated anonymously and learn that they have won by a phone call a few days before the public announcement.

"I was completely caught off-guard," Padden says. "I have been working on sign languages for 30 years—my entire career. It's very rewarding to feel that after all these years people recognize what you've done."

Padden noted that when she was first starting out she had a hard time getting funding for her work, which, she says, was not exactly mainstream at the time. "Either my ideas are now more widely accepted or I've gotten better at talking about them," she says.

Much of her early research focused on clarifying misconceptions about American Sign Language. More recently, Padden and an international team of colleagues have been studying Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL)—a new sign language that arose about 75 years ago in a small village in Israel's Negev Desert. News of ABSL made headlines worldwide. The work in the Negev continues, and holds tantalizing promise.

"Bedouin sign language has offered us the opportunity to see something unique: the birth of a language," says Jeff Elman, dean of Social Sciences. "This has huge potential to answer the question of where language comes from."

—Inga Kiderra