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New Language Meets New ‘Genius’

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 [email protected]

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