Signs and Wonders

An Israeli town where people talk with their hands--literally.

Source: OpinionJournal from the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page (http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110010507)

by Michael Philips Thursday, August 23, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

In the southern Israeli desert of Negev lies a community called Al-Sayyid. Inhabited by approximately 3,500 Bedouin, an Arab nomadic tribe that settled the area about 200 years ago, the village may seem rather humdrum at first glance. That is, until you see the villagers interacting--by making signs with their hands.

In Al-Sayyid, at least 150 residents are deaf, a rate 50 times greater than that of Israel's general population. As it happens, a recessive gene for profound deafness--traced back to sons of the "founding" couple--has made its way, through large families and genetic probabilities, into an ever-widening gene pool. Thus over three generations an extraordinarily high number of deaf children have been born to Al-Sayyid's villagers.

Of necessity, a special means of communication has sprung up: Nearly all the village's residents, hearing and deaf alike, are fluent in a sign language unique to Al-Sayyid. Margalit Fox's "Talking Hands," in part, describes this language and chronicles the work of a group of linguists who were allowed by townspeople to study it.

Though rare, such "signing villages" are not unheard of. Certain conditions are conducive to their forming. "First," Ms. Fox writes, "you need a gene for a form of inherited deafness. Second, you need huge families to pass the gene along." The practice of polygamy, together with the habit of marriage among cousins, speeds the rate of genetic spread. Al-Sayyid has met all these conditions.

As it happens, Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, once met at least the first two. From the middle of the 17th century to roughly the turn of the 20th, nearly everyone on the island used a distinctive sign language that was (mostly) born there. Nora Ellen Groce detailed its history in "Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language" (1985). By the time Ms. Groce began her research, signing on the island had ceased, since the last deaf person had died more than two decades before. Her book is a kind of oral history, with colorful interviews of older islanders who remembered the signing days.

By contrast, Ms. Fox, a reporter for the New York Times, visits Al-Sayyid when it is still in a signing mode. She offers a few humorous anecdotes but prefers to concentrate on the subject of how languages evolve. She devotes relatively brief space to her account of village residents' interacting with the four linguists charged with documenting Al-Sayyid's sign language. She devotes much more to a history of linguistics and of sign language in America and the world.

For example, she discusses an international conference for deaf educators in Milan that in 1880 declared "oralism" as the best way to integrate deaf people into general society. It was a bad idea that enjoyed high status among Western elites for many years. To show its wrong-headedness, Ms. Fox relates a rhetorical question posed to her by a linguist. Suppose an American were placed alone in a glass, soundproof booth in the middle of Japan. How on earth would he learn to speak Japanese?

The rhetorical answer: with the greatest difficulty. Learning a spoken language requires hearing it or learning it through instruction in a language one does understand. For the deaf, sign language may serve that intermediary function, but it must come first. After that Milan conference, it would take nearly 80 years before teaching primarily American Sign Language (ASL) to the deaf was accepted practice again in the U.S. and 90 years for linguists to come to a consensus that ASL is indeed a full-fledged language.

Linguists now believe that sign languages are processed in our minds in much the way that spoken languages are--and follow a similar evolutionary pattern. (This similarity is one reason why the study of sign languages is a growing subfield in linguistics.) The third generation of signers in Al-Sayyid uses its language with much greater speed than the first and with much greater structural complexity. Spoken language shows a kindred evolution.

We are well past the point in history where it is possible for a new spoken language to develop without the influence of other languages. What is so fascinating about Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), as the village's sign language is officially called, is that it was born with no apparent influence from any language at all. A case in point: The spoken languages of the region--Hebrew and the local Arabic dialect--favor sentences with a subject-verb-object sequence. (English does too.) ABSL favors subject-object-verb.

A close look at a young language--tracing its structure and developmental arc--is rarely possible in the modern age. Hence the appeal of studying ABSL. The language may well give scholars special insight into the workings of the mind and the intricacies of its linguistic faculties. There are other signing villages in the world today, but none with languages so fully developed as Al-Sayyid's.

Unfortunately, there isn't much time. Israeli Sign Language (ISL)--an entirely different language--threatens to encroach on ABSL and, inevitably, to "corrupt" its distinctiveness. But Al-Sayyid's residents know, as Ms. Fox explains, that learning ISL will give their children a better chance to thrive in the modern world, not least in the world just outside the village. Over time, it is unclear whether older residents, nurtured on a purer form of ABSL, will understand the younger ones. For now, at least, a unique sign language integrates everyone into a single community, whether they can hear or not.

Mr. Philips is The Wall Street Journal's assistant Leisure & Arts features editor. You can buy "Talking Hands" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.

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