New Language Meets New ‘Genius’

Carol Padden, the First Deaf MacArthur Grantee, Studies How Bedouins Use Sign Language

Ideal Setting: In Al-Sayyid village, researcher Carol Padden (right) has ‘the rare opportunity to observe a human language almost at the start of its development.’
COURTESY OF CAROL PADDEN
Ideal Setting: In Al-Sayyid village, researcher Carol Padden (right) has ‘the rare opportunity to observe a human language almost at the start of its development.’

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published October 27, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

As early immigrants to what is now Israel were learning how to communicate in a revived ancient language, the hard-of-hearing among them were creating a new language altogether. Combining signs from most all of the different countries from which the Jewish populations emigrated, Israeli Sign Language began to take shape in the 1930s. Around the same time, in a small village in Israel’s Negev Desert, another sign language was forming — one that did not grow out of older, existing sign languages, but arose, organically, out of the need to communicate with four deaf children born into one Bedouin family.

Al-Sayyid (pronounced es-SAYY-id) Bedouin Sign Language, its origins, evolution and how it contrasts with American and Israeli sign, has long been a focus of Carol Padden’s research. This fall, Padden, 55, a communications professor at the University of California, San Diego, became the first deaf person to receive a $500,000 “genius grant.” The prestigious, no-strings-attached awards are given out annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For the better part of a decade, Padden — who is not Jewish, but whose paternal grandfather was a Jew of Polish origin — has been working alongside Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler, two researchers at the Sign Language Laboratory at Haifa University. Their early work together centered on how word structures in Israeli Sign Language contrast with its much older American counterpart. They attributed much of the difference — Israeli sign, for example, incorporates much greater use of the entire body, not just the hands, than ASL — to the languages’ age. “The idea of comparing sign languages by how many generations of use was a relatively new idea when we began our research back in 2000,” said Padden, in an interview conducted via e-mail. “Previously, researchers had not considered whether sign languages might vary depending on their age.”

Shortly after they began working together, the research team turned its attention to the sign language used by the deaf and hearing Al-Sayyid Bedouins, who live in southern Israel. The Al-Sayyid community numbers about 3,000; an estimated one in 20 do not hear. The high rate of deafness is thought to be the result of a genetic predisposition in a community that has a high rate of in-marriage. (The Ashkenazic Jewish community is also at higher risk for gene mutations that can cause hearing impairments, though the rates are still far lower than that of the Al-Sayyid Bedouins.)

Padden recalled her first visit to the village that is home to Al-Sayyid signers. She said that she brought with her many misconceptions about the language, surmising that — because it was only three generations old and created in relative isolation from other sign languages — she would find people communicating with slow, simple gestures, and that the signers would have some difficulty understanding one another.

“To my astonishment, the signers communicated fluidly and fluently with one another, with no apparent confusion,” she said. “It was then that we realized we had the rare opportunity to observe a human language almost at the start of its development, young enough so that its properties could be studied, but just old enough that it was widely used throughout the community by both deaf and hearing people as a second language in the village.”

Bedouin sign is unique in the ways that it takes into account its users’ shared environment, with many pointing signs, referring to places within their village; the language also has a range of word “pronunciations,” or variations in the way a word or idea is signed; and it is full of synonyms for some of the most basic words.

These findings “show that the human brain can tolerate quite a bit of variation and does not require complete conventionalization and standardization for effective communication,” Wendy Sandler, a colleague of Padden, wrote in an e-mail.

“The ideal situation for linguists would be to be present at the birth of a new language; obviously, this is rarely possible,” said Margalit Fox, a New York Times reporter and the author of “Talking Hands” (Simon & Schuster, 2007), about the Al-Sayyid community. “What’s so remarkable about Al-Sayyid, for linguists like Carol and her colleagues, is that it represents a once-in-a-career opportunity to see what happens when the human mind has to make a language from scratch,” Fox said.

Padden has been able to travel Israel for work at least twice a year, thanks to a five-year National Institutes of Health grant that was recently renewed for an additional five years. It isn’t just the intellectual rigor of the work that brings her back, year after year. She has developed a strong emotional attachment to the desert village and its residents.

“I find myself connecting with the deaf women there on some of the most common everyday matters of life; about children, marriage and relationships with family,” Padden said. “We are alike, even if we are very different from one another. I appreciate how different we are because of our life circumstances, and I appreciate that there are ways we can meet and talk as friends despite these very different circumstances.”

Gabrielle Birkner is the Forward’s web editor. Contact her at birkner@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.