This research project, directed by PI Angela Nonaka, is the US portion of a larger international collaboration that was conceived under the European Science Foundation's EUROCORES Programme, EuroBABEL. The full EuroBABEL project will study endangered sign languages in village communities, and involves a collaboration of researchers from five countries, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel.

The U.S. project undertakes the linguistic anthropological documentation, description, and comparative analysis of Ban Khor Sign Language (BKSL), a language isolate used only in the village of Ban Khor, Thailand. BKSL is an 'indigenous' or 'village' sign language -- a language variety that spontaneously develops in small communities with large numbers of deaf people; labor-intensive economies; low intra-community educational and occupational differentiation between deaf and hearing people; and relatively positive attitudes toward sign language and deafness. This unusual language ecology currently distinguishes indigenous/village sign languages from other types of sign languages, e.g., 'national' or 'original' varieties.

Little is known about the characteristic linguistic features of indigenous/village sign languages. Yet preliminary analysis indicates that BKSL, like other language isolates, preserves unusual linguistic features, and there is growing consensus that study of this language variety can enrich understanding of language typologies, historical linguistics, universal grammar, etc. Regrettably, BKSL and other indigenous/village sign languages are endangered. They often exhibit compressed life cycles that lend urgency to and pose challenges for language documentation and description as well as for language preservation and revitalization.

The proposed study of BKSL is part of a collaborative endeavor to gather and evaluate linguistic anthropological data from indigenous/village sign languages around the world. More specifically, drawing on the combined expertise of hearing and Deaf linguists and anthropologists, this pioneering project creates standardized research protocols and employs systematic data collection to pursue detailed description of an under-documented and endangered sign language variety. By sharing their findings, the research partners will generate a robust, new data corpus that will allow for unprecedented cross-linguistic and cross-cultural study of indigenous/village sign languages, a critical step toward development of a formal typology of sign languages. Consistent with the goals of the sponsoring EuroBabel initiative, this international partnership will develop "better analyses based on endangered languages."

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University of Texas Austin
United States
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