Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Witnessing the Birth of Language

An offhand comment by a former professor tipped off New York Times reporter Margalit Fox to a remarkable linguistic quest: A group of researchers studying, firsthand, the birth of a language. The birth of a language? These scientists had been working secretly in a Bedouin village in the Israeli desert that, because of an unusually high population of deaf residents, had spontaneously created its own sign language, used by deaf and hearing villagers alike. What their experience teaches us about all languages, signed and spoken, is the subject of Margalit's amazing new book, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind, and our conversation:

VT: Let's start by talking about sign language as, well, a language. A big surprise in your book, at least to hearing people, is that sign language isn't just one language - there are many sign languages around the world.

Margalit: That's right. Even the most highly educated hearing people who don't have a deaf relative or other familiarity with sign language don't know this fact. My editor at Simon & Schuster who acquired the book, a very erudite, distinguished man, is a good example. The very first question he asked me when we met was whether deaf people all over the world speak one international sign language. I thought, Ah-ha, if this educated man doesn't know, then there's a need here.

Indeed, there are well over 100 official national sign languages. And -- this is a really mind-blowing thing -- American Sign Language and British Sign Language, even though they're both found in English-speaking countries, are mutually unintelligible. They're two entirely different languages that arose completely independently of each other.

VT: Wow.

Margalit: Right. And purely because of the historical development of deaf education in this country, a deaf American will actually have an easier time understanding a deaf Frenchman. Why? Because ASL [American Sign Language] is historically descended from French Sign Language. It has to do with the importation of teachers of the deaf from France to this country in the early 19th Century to found the first residential school for the deaf here. Even today, if you compare the vocabulary of French and American Sign Languages, something like 50 percent of the words in ASL have French Sign Language cognates.

VT: That's amazing. So given the richness of sign languages -- plural -- around the world, why was the sign language spoken in the Bedouin village so significant it inspired the scientists to study it -- and you to write a book?

Margalit: Two of my degrees are in linguistics and later I got a degree in journalism. As a journalist, I love it when I can combine the two strands of my background and write about language for a popular readership. When this opportunity came along it was mind-blowing -- for the same reasons it was mind-blowing for the scientists.

As the lead scientist, Wendy Sandler, says in the book, a linguist never has the opportunity to see a language born. Why not? Because all spoken languages, like English, are thousands of years old. Even new spoken languages that come up through cultural contact like, say, Haitian Creole, come from parent languages that are themselves thousands of years old. So if you think about it, as Wendy explains, only in a sign-language situation can a new language be born.

If you get a deaf community that's big enough and has historical continuity, a sign language can be born spontaneously because of man's natural language instinct, and there are no other languages in the environment that are accessible. So you have an once-in-a-lifetime, almost naturally occurring "experiment," for want of a better word.

That's why this is so thrilling for the scientists. It's a chance to see what happens when the human mind has to make a language from nothing. This sign language is only three generations old. For me as a journalist, this story is thrilling for that reason, and also for the chance to visit a place truly unlike any other.

VT: Tell us about the village.

Margalit: I'm not allowed to say exactly where this village is located for privacy reasons but, believe me, it's remote. You drive down an ever narrower series of unmarked dirt roads deep into a labyrinth of little whitewashed houses that basically are sitting in the middle of the desert. There are olive groves around. There are sheep and goats grazing. It's beyond rural, it's so remote.

You'll go into a house, a traditional house, which might consist of two or three rooms in a whitewashed stucco building with a tin roof. You'll sit on hand-loomed rugs on the floor. It's a polygamist society, so the head of the household might have three wives and twenty children. Maybe six of the children will be deaf. The whole family will be talking away in a mixture of spoken Arabic and the village sign language because, of course, a great many of the hearing villagers can use the sign language as well. You'll be in the middle of all these people signing, which is just completely ordinary there, and you'll look up and see a camel shambling by the front door. You really do find yourself thinking, hmm, we're not in Kansas anymore.

VT: Indeed. For a journalist, it doesn't get any better than this! Okay, let's talk about the big picture: What does this research tell us about language and the nature of language -- signed or not? What did you learn?

Margalit: As you'll see in the book, throughout history linguists have always dreamed, as Wendy Sandler says, of seeing what would happen if the human mind had to create language from scratch. How does the human language instinct work in a vacuum? You can't witness this, of course, because established spoken languages go back thousands of years. In time, they acquire all sorts of grammatical bells and whistles that obscure what you might get if the human language instinct were allowed to produce a "virgin" language.

VT: Human language instinct?

Margalit: Fifty years ago a young scholar named Noam Chomsky came blazing onto the linguistics scene and revolutionized the field. His assertion, now widely accepted, was that human beings come into the world hard-wired to make, acquire and use language. It's an instinct akin to the instinct of birds to migrate or spiders to spin webs.

Linguists have always been fascinated by the question of what would happen if you locked two babies in a room to see what kind of language this inborn "wiring" would produce on its own. This scenario has become known as the "Forbidden Experiment" because, of course, ethically you can't do it. Linguists have been dreaming about this for years. But once in a while...

VT: This village.

Margalit: Exactly. Once in a while with these deaf villages, nature on its own produces the Forbidden Experiment. You have this naturally occurring situation with a whole cohort of deaf people who are hard-wired with the same language instinct that hearing people are - but the language has to come out through a different channel. They don't have access to the auditory and oral channels that hearing people do, so it comes out in the manual-visual channel instead.

There are a few other of these "signing villages" that have been documented in the world. I had the great privilege of going a year ago to the first-ever international congress of researchers who are studying signing villages around the world -- when I say "international congress" I'm talking about twelve people! But they were together in one room for the first time ever, which was extraordinary.

Researchers are now studying signing villages in Ghana, Bali and Jamaica, among other places. You need very particular conditions for one of these villages to occur. You need isolation. You need intermarriage. And, obviously, you need a gene for some form of hereditary deafness. Isolation and intermarriage consolidate the gene pool, and what can happen is that you get many, many deaf people in the community. The so-called "normal" rate of deafness in both Israel and the United States is 1 in 1,000. In the Bedouin village I visited it was 1 in 25 -- 40 times that of the general population.

VT: Are you planning to return to the village for a follow-up?

Margalit: In terms of this village, no. I will never be allowed back, nor, perhaps, should I be. The linguists are very adamant about preserving the privacy of the people they study both for the sake of the villagers and for their own sake, in terms of getting continued entrée into the village. It took me nearly a year of trans-Atlantic negotiations with the scientists just to be allowed to make this one trip. So for me, my journey to this remarkable village of the deaf was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

[If you're interested to know more about Margalit's book, please check out her recent interview on public radio here. -- Editor]

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