Roots of language

I am currently involved in the study of a new sign language used in a community of hearing and deaf Bedouins in southern Israel. Together with Mark Aronoff, Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler, we have investigated the emergence of language structure in a sign language that was created within a closed community approximately 75 years ago. We report that by the second generation of signers, a number of structures have emerged: consistent word order, basic compounding, and differentiation of nouns and verbs within natural classes of signs. We are also developing models for the path of language emergence in the laboratory using gesture and artificial language. Our project combines studies in the field with studies in the laboratory, a dual approach to understanding the fundamental properties of human language.

Sign language structure

Studies of sign language structure are designed to uncover fundamental properties of human languages. Some aspects of sign languages are similar, even identical, to spoken language structure, for example, having levels of organization from the phonological to the morphological and syntactic. Other aspects of sign languages are less clearly like spoken languages, for example, the verb class system in American Sign Language (ASL). ASL verbs divide into three major classes: 1) plain verbs (without agreement), 2) spatial verbs (marking only locatives) and 3) agreement verbs (marking person and number agreement). Agreement in spoken languages rarely applies to a single semantic class, instead is more likely to appear more broadly across verbs. My recent work explores areas of sign language structure that appear to be unusual to sign languages, such as: fingerspelling, a manual system for representing alphabetic letters that is not iconic, yet interacts with signs, and a category of signs that alternate between handling/instrument forms for objects held by the hand.

Language and culture

Natural sign languages exist in communities of signers. The history of American Sign Language dates from the earliest years of colonial America. Tom Humphries and I have published two books on cultures and communities of Deaf people in the U.S.: Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Harvard University Press, 1988) and Inside Deaf Culture (Harvard University Press, 2005). We view culture as a dynamic process; at its heart are practices carried out in context. Such practices include rituals, performance as well as means of learning to read, learning to see and watch and learning to engage with others. ASL is a visual/manual language which is adaptive to the communicative and symbolic needs of a community of deaf people. Among the topics I have addressed in my published work are: performance in ASL, rhetoric in early ASL film (dating from 1913), and the future of sign languages in the age of cochlear implants and genetic engineering.