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Designed by: Shani Yules, Computing Division, University of Haifa

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a new language which arose spontaneously in a stable existing community in southern Israel. Over the past 75 years, in this insular, endogamous community with a high incidence of genetically transmitted deafness -- well over 100 of the 3,500 villagers are deaf a sign language emerged and developed. ABSL offers investigators Wendy Sandler and Irit Meir (University of Haifa), Carol Padden (University of California San Diego/CRL), and Mark Aronoff (SUNY-Stony Brook) a rare opportunity to trace the emergence of a language almost from the beginning, and to discover its essential ingredients.

The home base of this research is the Sign Language Research Lab at The University of Haifa, where Wendy Sandler is the Director and Irit Meir Associate Director. The research is also conducted at our satellite laboratory, Center for Research in Language at the University of California, San Diego under the directorship of Carol Padden, with research associates and graduate students, Mark Aronoff and Carol Padden are Research Affiliates of the University of Haifa Sign Language Research Lab.

No one knows when language evolved, but it is believed that humans began to use language at least 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. This means that all spoken languages are thousands of years old or descended from old languages. Even contact languages, called pidgins, and their more developed forms, creoles, originate in the old languages brought to the contact situation by the speakers.

It is only in a sign language that we can find a truly new language, offering a glimpse of human language in its most essential form. This is because sign languages arise spontaneously whenever a group of deaf people forms and has occasion to interact regularly. Due to the fact that the auditory channel is unavailable, nascent sign languages develop independently of the ambient spoken languages. Investigators have demonstrated that sign languages have grammatical structures of their own, not related to those of the spoken languages next to which they thrive (see Sandler 2006).

Still, although all known sign languages are relatively young (see Aronoff, Meir, and Sandler 2005), most well-studied sign languages are hundreds of years old, typically dating from the gathering together of deaf children in the first residential schools for the deaf.

In order to catch a language in the act of being born, scientists need to be at the right place at the right time, and the ABSL research team has had the good fortune to take advantage of just such a coincidence. Their research raises fascinating new questions: Is the innate human propensity for language so hard-wired that language will emerge full-blown very early? Do experience and social conditions of transmission influence the rate of development and degree of complexity in a language?

Do all sign languages exploit visuo-spatial cognition in the organization of their grammars, right from the get-go? What are the fundamental ingredients of language at the levels of sentence structure and word structure? Must a language have a meaningless level of structure (equivalent to the individual sounds in the words of spoken language) in order to do the job of facilitating rich communication across a community?

The project is grappling with these questions by documenting and analyzing the language, and comparing its development across generations of signers. A list of publications appears below. Working together with people from the village, the team is also creating a dictionary of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.

In addition to academic articles written by the researchers, you can read about this work in newspaper articles (for example, articles published in The New York Times (PDF) and Ha'aretz (English translation) (PDF).

A new book about this research by Margalit Fox, written for a general readership, has just been published -- see www.talkinghandsbook.com. (An excerpt appeared in Discover Magazine)

Talking Hands is a narrative nonfiction look at the sign languages of the deaf, and what science is learning from them. The book follows the four linguists as they work, and links this research to the study of sign languages and of all language generally, in an attempt, as Fox writes, to observe the language instinct in action.


Our team has created a DICTIONARY OF


List of our publications on ABSL:

Sandler, Wendy, Meir, Irit, Padden, Carol, and Aronoff, Mark. (2005). The Emergence of Grammar in a New Sign Language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol 102, No. 7. 2661-2665.

Aronoff, Mark, Padden, Carol, Meir, Irit, and Sandler, Wendy. (2004)Morpological Universals and the Sign Language Type. In Geert Booij and Jaap van Marle (eds.), Yearbook of Morphology 2004. Dordrecht / Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 19-40.

Meir, Irit, Padden, Carol, Aronoff, Mark, and Sandler, Wendy (2007). Body as subject. Journal of Linguistics 43, 531-563.

Padden, Carol, Meir, Irit, Sandler, Wendy, and Aronoff, Mark. In press. Against all expectations: Encoding subjects and objects in a new language. In D. Gerdts, J. Moore & M. Polinsky, (Eds.) Hypothesis A/Hypothesis B: Linguistic Explorations in Honor of David M. Perlmutter. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Aronoff Mark, Meir, Irit, Padden, Carol, & Sandler, Wendy (2008). The roots of linguistic organization in a new language. In Holophrasis, Compositionality And Protolanguage, Special Issue of Interaction Studies. Derek Bickerton and Michael Arbib (Eds.) pp. 133-149.

Al-Fityani, K. & Padden, C. (submitted paper). Sign language geography in the Arab world. In D. Brentari (Ed.)Sign Languages: A Cambridge Language Survey. New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Meir, Irit, Sandler, Wendy, Padden, Carol, & Aronoff, Mark (in press).  Emerging sign languages. (PDF)  In Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Volume 2.  M. Marschark and P. Spencer (Eds.).  

Israel, Assaf and Sandler, Wendy (2009). Phonological category resolution: A study of handshapes in younger and older sign languages. (PDF)  In  A. Castro Caldas and A. Mineiro (Eds.)  Cadernos de Saúde, Vol 2, Special Issue Línguas Gestuais, UCP: Lisbon. 13-28.
also to appear in R. Channon & H. van der Hulst (Eds.). Formational Units in Sign Language. Ishara Press. 

Sandler, Wendy.  2010.  The uniformity and diversity of language: Evidence from sign language.  Response to Evans and Levinson.  Lingua 120:2727-2732.

Sandler, Wendy, Meir, Irit, Dachkovsky, Svetlana, Padden, Carol, and Aronoff, Mark.  to appear.  The emergence of complexity in prosody and syntaxLingua.

Sandler, Wendy, Aronoff, Mark, Meir, Irit, Padden, Carol.  in press.  The gradual emergence of phonological form in a new languageNatural Language and Linguistic Theory.

Sandler, Wendy.  Prosody and syntax in sign languageTransactions of the philological society. 

Sandler, Wendy. to appear (2013). Dedicated gestures the emergence of sign language. Gesture 12/3.

Sandler, Wendy. to appear. (2013) Vive la différence. Sign language and spoken language in language evolution. Language and Cognition.