In Talking Hands (Reviews, May 14), journalist Margalit Fox takes readers on a groundbreaking research expedition to study a unique sign language invented in Al Sayyid, a remote Bedouin village where isolation and genetics have created an unusual language laboratory.
How did you get interested in sign languages?
I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics, and I’ve kept up a friendship with my college adviser, linguist Mark Aranoff. In August 2001, I was having lunch with him in a noisy restaurant in Times Square, complaining about how I’d always wanted to write a book, but couldn’t think of a really suitable topic. He said, “Why don’t you come with us to the desert?” Easier said than done, of course. I had to convince the team leader, Dr. Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa, to let me tag along. When you’ve got grant money to go into this unknown place and do scientific work that no one has done before, the situation is already fraught with the potential for so many things to go wrong. The last thing you want is somebody you don’t even know scribbling in a notebook
What’s so special about the sign language used in Al Sayyid?
Many people know about established, so-called “urban” sign languages, like American Sign Language. Al Sayyid sign language is what’s called a “village” sign language. It’s indigenous, natural and spontaneous. When you see it, you’re seeing the product of the human language instinct in action.
What was the village of Al Sayyid like?
It’s a traditional Bedouin community. A typical house is very modest, one story with two rooms, with a cement floor and a tin roof. They’re Muslim. The head of the household might have three wives and 20 children, and maybe half a dozen of the children will be deaf, and the whole family will be talking away with half the conversations in spoken Arabic and half in the village sign language. You literally cannot tell from watching the signing people who is deaf and who is hearing. It’s extraordinary.
How important is Al Sayyid sign language in terms of explaining how we create language?
Only about a dozen such cases of “village” sign language around the world have ever been documented, including an amazing case right here in the U.S. on Martha’s Vineyard in the 18th and 19th century. The study of “village” sign languages is a thrilling new field, where amazing discoveries are still out there for the taking.