In al-Sayyid, a Bedouin village in a remote corner of Israel’s Negev desert, deafness is considered less a disability and more a fact of life. The rate of deafness in the community is 50 times the world average; out of 4,000 residents, some 150 are deaf, the result of a gene that first emerged in the villagers’ ancestors a few generations ago.
Deaf men work alongside their hearing relatives in construction jobs in nearby Israeli towns, and the deaf marry both deaf and hearing relatives — sometimes both, as the Bedouin tradition allows for polygamy and for the marriage between cousins.
Most important, both hearing and deaf members of the community speak al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, a local language that developed in the village as its deaf population grew. ABSL, like other, similar “village sign languages,” is not a counterpart to any other spoken or signed language: It does not share characteristics with the Bedouin Arabic dialect, Modern Standard Arabic, or Israeli Sign Language, all of which are also used in the village.
“One of the most exciting things about this language is that it arose out of nothing,” says Wendy Sandler, the director of the Sign Language Research Lab at Haifa University, who has studied the al-Sayyid’s sign language since 2000, along with fellow linguists Irit Meir, also from Haifa University; Carol Padden of University of California, San Diego; and Mark Aronoff of Stony Brook University. Village sign languages, Sandler says, are appealing to researchers for two reasons: One, they “match form to function more directly” than in spoken languages; and two, when they’re still evolving, they offer a chance to “literally see [the language] unfold.” Which means al-Sayyid has become a perfect laboratory for linguists looking to answer an age-old question: How does a language form in the first place? And can the evolution of a relatively new one, like ABSL, tell us anything about the traits all languages have in common?
Researchers can accurately date the origins of ABSL to 200 years ago, a time when nomadic Arab tribes roamed the dunes of the Negev desert and survived by herding goats. The head of one of those tribes was the sheikh of the al-Sayyid clan, an Egyptian peasant who migrated to the area after a family feud, married a number of local women, and adopted the Bedouin way of life. When his children, two of whom carried the recessive deafness gene, were rejected as “foreigners” by surrounding Bedouin tribes, they married among themselves. Four generations later, the first deaf children were born; as their deaf children had deaf children of their own, the language started to form.