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 heating 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 Sham Sign Language. Using a specially designed battery of elicitation materials -- video clips of staged vignettes, animated cartoons, and individual pictures - we wilt 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.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
Research Project (R01)
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Biobehavioral and Behavioral Processes 3 (BBBP)
Program Officer
Cooper, Judith
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University of California San Diego
Other Health Professions
Schools of Arts and Sciences
La Jolla
United States
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Meir, Irit; Aronoff, Mark; Börstell, Carl et al. (2017) The effect of being human and the basis of grammatical word order: Insights from novel communication systems and young sign languages. Cognition 158:189-207
Padden, Carol; Hwang, So-One; Lepic, Ryan et al. (2015) Tools for language: patterned iconicity in sign language nouns and verbs. Top Cogn Sci 7:81-94
Meir, Irit; Padden, Carol; Aronoff, Mark et al. (2013) Competing iconicities in the structure of languages. Cogn Linguist 24:
Verhoef, Tessa (2012) The origins of duality of patterning in artificial whistled languages. Lang Cogn 4:357-380
de Boer, Bart; Sandler, Wendy; Kirby, Simon (2012) New perspectives on duality of patterning: Introduction to the special issue. Lang Cogn 4:251-259
Sandler, Wendy (2012) THE PHONOLOGICAL ORGANIZATION OF SIGN LANGUAGES. Lang Linguist Compass 6:162-182
Meir, Irit (2012) The evolution of verb classes and verb agreement in sign languages. Theor Linguist 38:145-152
Giudice, Alex Del (2012) The emergence of duality of patterning through iterated learning: Precursors to phonology in a visual lexicon. Lang Cogn 4:381-418
Sandler, Wendy; Meir, Irit; Dachkovsky, Svetlana et al. (2011) The emergence of complexity in prosody and syntax. Lingua 121:2014-2033
Sandler, Wendy; Aronoff, Mark; Meir, Irit et al. (2011) The gradual emergence of phonological form in a new language. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 29:503-543

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