Emergence of grammar in a new sign language

Irit Meir • Wendy Sandler • Carol Padden • Mark Aronoff

Principal Investigators

Carol Padden, UCSD

Wendy Sandler, University of Haifa, Israel


This project grasps a rare opportunity to study the emergence of grammar in a new and isolated sign language born less than 70 years ago among Abu Shara Bedouins in Israel. Because of the family and social patterns in this 3,500-member community, there are now 80 deaf people (2+% of the population), ranging from middle age through infancy. The language is fully integrated into the community, with mixed deaf and hearing families, and hearing people using the language proficiently. The historical stages of development of the language are observable synchronically through the study of signers of different ages. The project will focus primarily on known sign language universal properties; in established sign languages, these properties are manifested by a verb agreement system with particular properties, and by a grammatical subsystem of classifier constructions. Preliminary investigation reveals that even these iconically motivated and sign language universal systems begin life as an unsystematic amalgam, developing gradually rather than abruptly. We will document the diachronic evolution of grammatical properties through the generations and study their relation to universal properties of natural language grammar as well as to the grammars of other sign languages. We will also chart the emergence of a prosodic system by investigating the use of rhythm and facial expression. As the constituents of prosody are known to reflect syntactic constituency, we aim to use the more salient prosodic patterning as a point of entry for analyzing the syntactic structure of Abu Shara Sign Language. Using a specially designed battery of elicitation materials—video clips of staged vignettes, animated cartoons, and individual pictures—we will study the language through the generations. A dictionary will be produced for the community, which will double as a synchronic means of eliciting individual words over a diachronic corpus. As the language to be studied is new, isolated, and transmitted normally in family settings, it is expected to highlight those properties that are essential to any natural human language. The results of the project will be useful for enterprises that must mimic such a system: designing symbol systems for augmentative communication, devising basic natural communication systems for autistic children, and others.

Key Personnel

Name Organization Role on Project
Padden, Carol University of California, San Diego Project Director & PI
Sandler, Wendy University of Haifa, Israel Principal Investigator
Meir, Irit University of Haifa, Israel Co-Investigator
Aronoff, Mark State University of New York, Stonybrook Consultant
Senghas, Ann Barnard College, New York Consultant

Grant Proposal