Picture 1 Picture 2 Picture 3

Emergence of a New Sign Language

Our principal aim in this research project is to gain an understanding of how linguistic complexity arises and develops overtime in a new language. Our studies support a view of language emergence that is opportunistic, determined, and organized: the constructors of emerging languages are opportunistic in that they take advantage of what resources are available; the languages are determined insofar as what is given is a human mind/body in a human social communicative interaction; and they are organized in that these language constructors use this material to create increasingly complex linguistic systems.

Our work on a new sign language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ASL) and other sign languages has led us to conclude that some of the grammatical categories of a language are embodied: grounded in the human body and its physical situation in the world. First, the hand/body dichotomy is used to represent Aristotelian predication: the hands represent the predicate, the body represents the subject. Secondly, the hands and the body are used to represent agreement of the predicate with subject and object, in those sign languages that developed verb agreement. Our earlier work on ABSL syntax, combined with more recent findings on gesture systems,appears to indicate that the order of sentence constituents (Subject, Object, Verb) does not bear the hallmarks of self-organization. Phonology and morphology, by contrast, which are barely nascent in ABSL, may more closelyresemble self-organizing systems, in which case we will have evidence that languages are complex systems in which different components have different characteristics.