While all extant spoken languages are thousands of years old or descended from old languages, only sign languages can be born at any time, allowing researchers a glimpse of human language in its most essential form. Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) arose spontaneously a mere 80 years ago in a stable existing community in southern Israel with a high incidence of genetically transmitted deafness - well over 130 of the 4,000 villagers are deaf. The language continues to be used by deaf and hearing people, offering the research team an opportunity to chart its development over time. Investigations by researchers Wendy Sandler and Irit Meir (University of Haifa), Carol Padden (University of California San Diego/CRL), and Mark Aronoff (SUNY-Stony Brook) reveal how a language begins, and how it slowly but surely accrues linguistic structure.
The investigation of prosody in Israeli Sign Language demonstrates that sign languages have comparable prosodic systems to those of spoken languages, although the phonetic medium is completely different. The research led by Wendy Sandler has presented evidence for prosodic constituents in ISL and established that facial expression in sign language plays a role similar to that of intonation in spoken language. Similarities as well as interesting formal differences between the intonation of spoken and signed language offer a new perspective on the relation between the phonetic basis of language, its phonological organization, and its communicative content.
Signs in sign languages have internal morphological structure, like words in spoken languages. Yet sign languages favor a specific type of morphology, the simultaneous, non-concatenative type. Verb agreement is an example. By applying a particular componential analysis of verbs in ISL, Irit Meir develops a model which can predict the agreement pattern of each verb in ISL and other sign languages, and, at the same time, can pinpoint the similarities and differences between the spatial predicates of ISL (and sign languages generally) and the auxiliary and verb systems of spoken languages.
By examining both the common non-concatenative type of sign language morphology as well as the rare but attested sequential affixation in these languages, our work identifies properties that make sign language a morphological type.
The historical development of Israeli Sign Language (ISL), from its earliest days to the present, is the focus of this research project, conducted by Irit Meir. Since ISL is a young language, having come into existence as the local Deaf community coalesced, beginning about 80 years ago, it provides a natural laboratory for investigating the formation of a national sign language language change in a culturally and linguistically diverse community. The project systematically investigates the language of four generations of signers, and the ways in which each contributed to the development of the full contemporary system.
Algerian Jewish Sign Language originated in Ghardaia, a mostly Berber town located in the M'zab (sub-Saharan) region of Algeria. The Jewish community there was socially and genetically isolated. Consanguineous marriage resulted in a high percentage of deafness (2.5%), that goes back at least five generations. By the 1960s, the entire Jewish community had left Ghardaia and emigrated to Israel or to France, and deaf people continued to use the sign language among themselves and with their hearing family members.In this research poject we investigate the socio-linguistic conditions that led to the emergence of the language in Ghardaia and to its survival in Israel. Additionally, we document the vocabulary of this language (see AJSL dictionary) and its linguistic structure.
Apart from Israeli Sign Language and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, we have learned that there are a number of other sign languages in towns and villages in Israel, prompting a colleague to nickname Israel ‘the Papua New Guinea of sign language’. That may be an exaggeration, but it helps to make the surprising point that there are at least six village sign languages alongside the national sign language, in a geographical area smaller than the U.S. state of New Hampshire.