Mother Tongues

a journey through language

How Sign Languages Can Teach Us About Language Evolution

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In the midst of the mass language extinction currently afflicting our ethnosphere, there are bursts of linguistic life.

Sign languages!

Despite the loss of spoken languages, sign languages are springing up all over the place.

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Despite the widespread extinction of spoken languages, new sign languages are emerging.

These new visual lingos don’t make up for the destruction of irreplaceable cultural heritage in the wake of an English-tsunami. But they do offer a fascinating insight into how languages emerge and evolve.

One reason Sign Languages rule

To study the birth of new languages, linguists have often turned to pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a super-simplified form of language used to communicate between people with different native tongues. Sometimes, a pidgin language will develop its vocabulary and grammar – when it reaches this level of complexity and is spoken as the mother tongue of a new generation, it is called a creole.

But some linguists argue that these aren’t really ~new~ languages because they are heavily influenced by the two languages of the initial pidgin-speakers.

This is where sign languages come in. When they emerge in deaf communities, sign languages are shiny and new, language-newborns just squeezed out of human brain-wombs. These lingo-babies are ripe for studying the origins and evolution of language.

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Emerging sign languages are RIPE for studying the origins and evolution of language.

Nicaraguan Sign Language

Up until the late 1970s, Deaf people in this Central American nation had been mostly isolated. But in 1977, a school for Deaf children was established. Education at the school focused on lipreading and fingerspelling of spoken Spanish. Aaaand as with other places where this “spoken” education was forced on Deaf people, it failed miserably.

But in the schoolyard and on the bus, something pretty magical was happening. The children were creating their own sign language. As younger children learnt these signs, they adopted more complex grammar by changing the position or direction of their signs. Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN) was born.

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Nicaraguan Sign Language first emerged only a few decades ago in the late 1970s.

This got linguists pretty excited – and sparked some hefty arguments. Some linguists see the ISN case as confirmation of the idea that we are innately hardwired for language – that we have a “language acquisition device” in our brain. But others disagree – it could be just a general problem solving strategy that allows us to create languages for communication. There’s also a lot of debate about when exactly ISN became a fully fledged language.

Sign Languages in the lab

Earlier this year, researchers presented a study detailing how gestures become systematised into an artificial sign language over successive generations.

Volunteers made up manual gestures for 24 different concepts, like “photographer.” They then taught the sign to a partner. The partner then gestured the sign and other volunteers had to guess its meaning. If they got it right, the guessers taught that sign to a new generation. And so this iterative learning process continued. After a few successive rounds, the signs became more systematic and efficient, and more language-like, rather than simply acting out.

Check out the video below to see how pantomime evolved into a consistent sign:

Video via Science Magazine on Youtube

An evolutionary model for language?

Nicaraguan Sign Language is just one of many emerging sign languages around the world – you could also check out Israeli Sign Language (ISL) and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL).

Linguists studying these budding communication systems noticed that all these young sign languages, despite being found in opposite corners of the globe, evolved in predictable ways.

With each generation, signers recruited more parts of their body to communicate: from their dominant hand, to their head and facial expression, to upper body position and their non-dominant hand. This pattern was consistent across disparate languages.

These similarities hint at the tantalising possibility of a general model for language evolution. Perhaps this systematic evolution reflects some language brain software common to all of us? There’s still many questions to answer (and find), but baby sign languages offer us a promising approach to solving these evolutionary riddles.


 

If you wanna learn about New Zealand Sign Language, check out my last post.

What do you think: do humans have a special language acquisition device hardwired in our brain? Or are we just really good at general problem solving? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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Author: Ellen

Aspiring writer & nature enthusiast

5 thoughts on “How Sign Languages Can Teach Us About Language Evolution

  1. Robert Ornstein, in The Evolution of Consciousness, ascribes the human capacity for language to our primate ancestors’ lifestyle: the exact same part of the brain now used for language is the one where our fine motor control developed, largely from the ability to swing from tree branch to branch.

    Something, I suppose, remains in the ability to sustain sight of the goal and suspend final analysis till the end of a rhythmic sequence–like holding a sentence in our head till all the grammatical requisites are met and the full meaning can be understood.

    I’ve always believed this explanation of the process through which we WERE hard-wired for language (and grammar and writing) to be as reasonable as any.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. Why do you think that this part of the brain changed from fine motor control to language in humans but not other primates like chimpanzees? If I’ve understood your explanation correctly…

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      • As I understood it originally, it didn’t change to language so much as it was there, ready and waiting to enable the development of more complex language rhythms, etc. Hm. Should re-read Ornstein–or read some more of him.

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  2. You really make it appear really easy together with your presentation but I to find this matter to be really one thing which I believe I would by no means understand. It sort of feels too complicated and very huge for me. I am having a look ahead on your next publish, I’ll attempt to get the dangle of it!

    Like

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