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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Signs of New Languages

Research center co-directors Newport and Supalla: English is her native language. ASL is his. Their work is a blend of her specialty, brain and cognitive science, and his, linguistics. They met and married at UC San Diego before joining the Rochester faculty in 1988.

What does a brand-new language look like? And how does it evolve into a mature language that can communicate not only about objects, but about time, space, order, and other abstract concepts? Rochester researchers think they can find out by studying homemade sign languages made up by isolated deaf people.

By Scott Hauser

The deaf man Ted Supalla met in the remote Israeli village knew only one language, one he had pretty much made up for himself with the help of family and friends.

A young Bedouin already isolated as a member of the deaf minority in a world of sound--and further isolated as part of an Arab minority living in Israel--he had met few other deaf people.

Like most non-hearing youngsters who grow up outside a deaf community, he developed a system of expressive gestures that only his close associates could interpret.

Homegrown languages like this, known to linguists as "home sign," were precisely what had drawn Supalla to Israel last spring. The Rochester professor was looking to further his study of the genesis and growth of language by examining a first-generation form of communication--the young man's version of homemade sign.

As a window into how early humans first developed the gift of language, that's the equivalent of being present at the Big Bang.

When Supalla and his Bedouin acquaintance first met, they carried on the kind of gesture-laden conversation you'd expect between speakers of two different tongues eager to communicate--halting but, on a basic level, remarkably effective.

What did the young man want to talk about?

"The first thing was his frustration about getting a driver's license," says Supalla, a native speaker of American Sign Language, conversing through interpreter Patty Clark.

"He wanted the license for obvious reasons: He was a young man. He wanted a little freedom, and he wanted to have fun, to have a good life."

Perhaps not the most profound moment in the history of linguistics, but an important one for the young man, and an important moment of contact for Supalla.

That the two--one a deaf linguist from the United States fluent in ASL, the other using an invented language in a Middle Eastern hamlet--could converse at all testifies to the remarkable ability of humans to communicate with others of the species.

But the meeting also underscores how often sign language is overlooked, unremarked upon in the voluminous histories of spoken languages around the world. The ability of sign to spring up wherever deaf people live, despite their geographic or cultural isolation, makes such remote communities natural laboratories for scientists like Supalla.

Nowhere in the world of the hearing can you find a spoken language so close to its roots. "That's gone," says Supalla's colleague Elissa Newport, chair of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. To study a first-generation spoken language, "you would want to look at the kind of grunts people made when they were still using nonlinguistic noises. And you wouldn't know where to look for that now."

Supalla and Newport, co-directors of the University's Sign Language Research Center, have been at the forefront of explorations into evolving sign languages--often quite literally. In addition to the deserts of Israel, their research teams are scouring the jungles of Nicaragua, rocky islands off the coast of Japan, and Navajo reservations in the American Southwest in search of deaf people who are, often, living incommunicado from the rest of the world.

The far-flung searches are necessary because the historical moment for finding such isolated pockets in most of the United States has passed, thanks to the awareness of deafness among medical and education professionals, Supalla says.

Deaf children are identified relatively early, and programs are in place to guide them and their parents.

But remote locations, either through accidents of geography and politics, or because of the relative poverty levels of the areas involved, are more likely to be home to families with deaf children who have been shut off from their non-hearing peers.

"This is where we have an opportunity to observe what is happening in an emerging group of language users," Supalla says.

Typically, the researchers are looking for forms of home sign. In this well-documented phenomenon, an isolated deaf person learns to communicate with friends and family by devising a set of gestures to describe everyday objects and, along with it, a rudimentary system for indicating action, time, place, and other concepts. It's considered analogous to "pidgin"--a language with greatly reduced vocabulary and grammatical structure that results from the attempt to communicate by speakers of two different languages.

For many deaf people in isolated regions, home sign may be their only form of communication. Typical is the 70-year-old man the team interviewed on Amami Island in Japan: He had used his idiosyncratic sign his entire life.

By studying a number of home sign communities, Supalla and his group hope to document the process through which the makeshift gestures of a home sign pidgin evolve into a full-blown language. That process--the development of an evolved language complete with its own grammar and syntax--is what happens as home signers meet in larger communities, such as schools and clubs, where they begin to pool their different forms of pidgin.

Nicaragua is one example. When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, they organized the first schools for deaf children, bringing together the "first generation" of signers. They have already passed the basics of a brand-new language on to the "second generation."

This process is being observed and analyzed by Ann Senghas, a former member of the Sign Language Research Center, and Marie Coppola, a current graduate student.

The new Nicaraguan schools, Supalla says, "provided what is necessary for a language to develop--a community of peers." Such communities set the stage for what's believed to be a vital step in language formation--"creolization." During that process, the pidgin versions take on the characteristics of a full language and begin to be used as a means of discourse both among the group and with outsiders.

Newport, whose own research centers on how people acquire language, says that, although scientists have long theorized about the ways in which creolization occurs, they have been able to study the process only after the fact.

Many theories argue that a major factor in that process is the extraordinary ability of children to take the words--or in the case of sign, the gestures--used by their parents and to transform that input into a language.

Newport has observed something of this in her own studies of deaf children learning ASL from parents who, in order to communicate with them, studied the language relatively late in life. In nearly all such cases, the children spontaneously expand upon what their less-than-fluent parents have exposed them to, and, if given the right stimuli, soon outdistance them.

"People have lots of theories about how this happens, but no linguist has ever actually observed it," says Newport. "What's special about these remote communities of deaf people is that we can watch and study as they go through the process of creolization."

"We don't know what the exact processes are," she says. "We know what a mature language is, and we know what an early language is--but we don't know what happens in between."

Finding out is painstaking work. In the attempt to analyze language formation, interviewers spend hours videotaping signers as they respond to a series of tasks intended to help pinpoint things like vocabulary and word order. Signers, for example, might watch a video of a boy pushing a girl, and then a girl pushing a boy. They're asked to describe each scene.

By analyzing the responses (comparing the means, for instance, by which the signers differentiate between the pusher and the pushee), Supalla hopes to tease out the threads of language. That analysis is just getting started.

He's getting some guidance from the known history of ASL. Not even a distant relative of English--nor for that matter British Sign Language--ASL is instead a descendant of the sign language used in 19th century France. It was brought to the United States when Laurent Clerc, a French educator, was persuaded to teach in newly organized American schools for the deaf.

Signing in this country enjoyed something of a heyday in the late 1800s. Then, under the urging of such notables in deaf education as Alexander Graham Bell, reformers turned to lipreading as a better way for deaf people to make their way in a hearing world. Sign was driven out of the schools.

It wasn't until the early 1970s that linguists, cognitive scientists, and educators took a new interest in ASL and began to study it as a language in its own right.

Despite its suppression, ASL had not disappeared but had simply gone underground, remaining a primary means of communication for many deaf people. Current ASL speakers are considered to be the seventh or eighth generation--depending on how you count them--to use the language.

Although sketchy, the history of ASL is fairly well documented, considering that there was no means to record it until the early 20th century. In contrast, the known history of spoken languages stretches for millennia as humans have inscribed their words on cave walls, stone tablets, monuments, papyrus, paper, and now in cyberspace.

The advent of film offered the first documented glimpse of sign. In 1910 the National Association for the Deaf began recording ASL speakers, in part to create an archive of a language that was then believed to be on its way to extinction.

Viewing the films, now computerized so that researchers can freeze-frame separate signs on their desktops, Supalla and his staff can observe snippets of language history. In one clip, a woman dressed as an American Indian recites Longfellow's poem The Death of Minnehaha. In another, a man on a street corner lectures to a small crowd.

"When we first started, we thought we would be able to understand quite a bit of what they were signing back then," Supalla says. "But we found some signs that had different meanings from what they do now, and some forms that look pretty similar but for which the meaning has changed."

Take, for example, the sign for "never." A fluent ASL speaker with a linguistic bent, Supalla has long been intrigued by its origins.

To those unversed in ASL, when Supalla makes the sign in his native language it flashes by in a flutter. His open right hand traces a small arc and then zigs down and away from his body. Like a lightning bolt. "Never."

Then he does it again, more slowly, hinting that something more is at work connecting the arc and the lightning bolt.

Why has that movement come to represent the word and concept for "never"?

"You can't figure out where it came from just by looking at the sign," he says. "The sign itself is opaque, and you can't recapture what went into its creation."

By analyzing the 80-year-old films, Supalla has discovered that "never" used to be signed differently. The signers filmed in 1910 drew a full circle with a right index finger, stopped, and then wiped an open palm through the air where the invisible circle had floated.

What had happened?

Supalla theorizes that successive generations of ASL users essentially contracted the sign, much as English speakers long ago ran "do" and "not" together to get "don't."

But unlike modern English--where the parent forms like "do" and "not" still exist--ASL lost the earlier pieces, keeping only the contracted form.

"We had never thought of ASL as having contractions until we saw this footage," Supalla says.

Similar changes have taken place in other signs. An early sign for "body"--two hands held in parallel in front of the speaker--has become an affix for other words: a word extension meaning "the person (body) who does something." When used with the sign for "to cook," the result is "a cook." A new sign, fingertips lighting on the chest and upper abdomen, is now used to indicate "body."

"Are the languages in remote areas going through the same patterns that we've seen ASL going through?" Supalla wonders.

If there is little recorded history of ASL, there is--as yet--no recorded history of sign languages in places such as Nicaragua. Or Amami Island. Or among the Bedouin clans of the deserts of Israel.

But there are plenty of questions for a linguist.

What does a brand new language look like? How does a new language evolve into a mature language that can communicate not only about objects, but about time, space, order, and other abstract concepts? What part of language, if any, is dependent on the method of communication, on the use of vocal cords versus the use of hands and facial expressions?

What does the development of language indicate about the way the brain processes it? Or about human nature?

One question Supalla is not interested in, though, is whether there is a "right" way to teach indigenous communities how to find their voices, either for communicating with each other, or in communicating with the rest of the world.

That question, he says, is intertwined with issues of cultural colonialism that often plague relations between the "first" and "third worlds" and between the hearing and deaf worlds.

But he sometimes marvels at the universality of the urge to communicate.

After meeting with Israeli social workers, he was able to help his Bedouin friend get set up in education courses and on the road to a driver's license.

"It's always such a surprise to me that the deaf seem to share the same life experiences in terms of being deaf," he says.

"Fundamentally, it's the experience of trying to communicate with the outside world and maintaining positive self-esteem. That feeling always seems to arise when I meet a deaf person in another country. That has made me realize what Deaf Culture, in its essence, really means."

And he hopes that the indigenous communities will be recognized and their languages given the status they deserve. With that, he says, comes empowerment.

"Improvement in the quality of life for the deaf person involves the removing of barriers within their communities," Supalla says.

"Society is finally recognizing the status of sign language in the lives of deaf people."

Scott Hauser wrote the story about the new interest in classical studies that ran in the Fall issue of Rochester Review.

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