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My interest in linguistics was sparked by John McWhorter's popular book The Power of Babel, which, in its section on creoles, includes a small piece on Nicaraguan Sign Language, which really sparked my imagination.

According to that book, it's the only language which has been, in historical times, and in a fairly well documented way, built from scratch, instead of being derived from other languages. According to a free lecture by an anthropologist (I wish I could remember his name) I went to in Trinity College, Dublin, it's a little more complicated than that. The existence of a precursor to ISN (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) has not been completely ruled out. The Wikipedia article on Nicaraguan Sign Language also mentions the possibility of influence from American Sign Language.

How important is ISN in the study of linguistics? Are there other languages with a similar history? Was it really born from nothing?

  • Your question title made two assumptions: 1) That NSL didn't have any influences and 2) That we know the origins of any languages - but in the question body you seem to address them (-: – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 20:38
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    You need to operationalize what you mean by "from nothing." To ensure no influence from anyone, I think you'd need a hypothetical tribe of wolf children (i.e. children release to the wild before they learn to speak, but somehow live to adulthood) Children of pidgin speakers will form languages from pretty impoverished input, but they use that input, e.g. Hawaiian Creole. – MatthewMartin Sep 20 '11 at 19:56
  • I'd suggest rewording the question to "with no linguistic input" or something similar. Things only come from nothing by magic ;-) the children did it by reorganizing and grammaticalizing gestural communication. For the process, see Susan Goldin-Meadow's work on home sign. – Joe Martin Apr 17 '12 at 5:44
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ISN is really important in the study of language - it's the first time that a language has been tracked almost since its inception. Judy Kegl, the linguist who came to Nicaragua at the request of their government, started working on ISN in 1986, only about 7 years after the deaf school opened. Some Creole languages aren't particularly old but no one was there to study their acquisition by children in such a detailed way.

To say the language came from "nothing" is a bit deceptive - many of the children had "home sign" systems which they would use to communicate with their hearing family members - but these were incredibly basic and impoverished sign systems compared to the ISN. Kegl was able to work with the earliest students at the school and the cohort that was then in 1986 and compare the sophistication of their language.

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There is also the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, which developed under similar circumstances (isolated deaf community) in the south of Israel. It developed a little earlier than ISN (early 1900s vs. 1970s), but members of the first generation of fluent signers have been studied, and the language is a subject of active research. According to Wikipedia, the word order (SOV) is different from the word orders of other surrounding languages (Hebrew, Arabic), lending credence to the idea that the language is not related to these languages.

  • Cool. I must learn more about this. – TRiG Sep 15 '11 at 1:03
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No, this is not the only example of a language that was developed de novo. When deaf people are born in an environment where sign language is used, they acquire it just like hearing children acquire spoken language. However, between 90 and 95% of deaf people are born to hearing parents. Parents are met with a variety of early intervention options, and sometimes choose not to teach their children sign language opting instead for spoken language based interventions (hearing aids, speech therapy, cochlear implants..etc). Sometimes the spoken language interventions fail, and the children (no longer babies) have not been exposed to language at all. One of the most remarkable discoveries is that these children will invent idiosyncratic signing systems, and these systems are actually much more systematic and complex than the gesture systems that even their mothers use. Essentially, these kids are inventing a linguistic system (albeit simplistic) on their own. These home sign systems can sometimes become languages through two mechanisms. In the Nicaraguan case, a school was established and they came together and over the past few decades their idiosyncratic systems became conventionalized and much more complex. New students come to the school and learn the language from their peers. This is an example of a community sign language. The other way this can happen is in families that are genetically deaf. If these families are in a relatively isolated location, such as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language users, they can develop a language over the generations. Children learning village sign language learn it from their parents from birth.

For this reason, I think despite the fact that Nicaraguan Sign Language originated with home signers, it is fair to say that it developed from nothing.

Nicaraguan Sign Language has been well studied because researchers were there from the inception, and have been able to look at its genesis. There are a handful of village sign languages that have been documented. Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language is one of the better documented village sign languages. I am working on a new one in a village in Turkey called Central Taurus Sign Language that we discovered last year.

Sandler, W., Meir, I., Padden, C., & Aronoff, M. (2005). The emergence of grammar: Systematic structure in a new language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(7), 2661-2665.

Senghas, A. (1995). Children's contribution to the birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Mylander, C., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (1991). Home sign systems in deaf children: The development of morphology without a conventional language model. Theoretical issues in sign language research, 2, 41-63.

Carrigan, E. M., & Coppola, M. (2012). Mothers Do Not Drive Structure in Adult Homesign Systems: Evidence from Comprehension. In N. Miyake, D. Peebles, & RP Cooper,(Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1398-1403).

  • Good answer, although I would argue that a natural language needs to have speakers who are exposed to and learn it from birth, which would not include homesign systems that the child helped to create. – timothymh May 5 '17 at 4:40

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