There are three signed languages going. There is American Sign Language, used by one of the visitors, a deaf linguist from California. There is Israeli Sign Language, the language of the deaf in that country, whose structure the two Israeli scholars have devoted years to analyzing. And there is a third language, the one the linguists have journeyed here to see: a signed language spoken in this village and nowhere else in the world.
The language is Al-Sayyid's genetic legacy. In this isolated traditional community, where marriage to outsiders is rare, a form of inherited deafness has been passed down from one generation to the next for the last seventy years. Of the 3,500 residents of the village today, nearly 150 are deaf, an incidence forty times that of the general population. As a result, an indigenous signed language has sprung up here, evolving among the deaf villagers as a means of communication. That can happen whenever deaf people come together. But what is so striking about the sign language of Al-Sayyid is that many hearing villagers can also speak it. It permeates every aspect of community life here, used between parents and children, husbands and wives, from sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor. At every hour of the day, in the houses, in the fields and in the mosque, there are people conversing in sign. In Al-Sayyid, the four linguists have encountered a veritable island of the deaf.
Their work here will occupy them for years to come, in all likelihood for the rest of their careers. They plan to observe the language, to record it, and to produce an illustrated dictionary, the first-ever documentary record of the villagers' signed communication system. But the linguists are after something even larger. Because Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language has arisen entirely on its own, outside the influence of any other language, it offers a living demonstration of the "language instinct," man's inborn capacity to create language from thin air. If the linguists can decode this language -- if they can isolate the formal elements that make Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language a language -- they will be in possession of a new and compelling body of evidence in the search for the ingredients essential to all language, signed and spoken. And in so doing, they will have helped illuminate one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.
Text copyright © 2007 by Margalit Fox
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