Food & Culture

Researchers Have Witnessed the Birth and Development of a Completely New Language

Before 1980, deaf people in Nicaragua were isolated from each other and from formal education. When the first school for the deaf was established, children from around the country were brought together, many of them meeting other deaf people for the first time. Though they were initially meant to be trained in spoken Spanish and lip-reading, they brought the different gestures they had used to communicate with their families at home and created an improvised sort of sign-communication system with each other. This rudimentary system was turned by the next generations of students into a fully fledged, grammatically complete sign language known as the "Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua." Linguistic researchers began recording and studying the emerging language in 1986. They have been able to document, in real time, the birth of a language.

From "Pidgin" to Language

How do new languages arise? Usually out of already-existing languages. A language may change and drift so much within a population that it becomes no longer intelligible to other populations that once spoke the same language. This is how Latin turns into French and Spanish. Another way is for very different languages to come into contact, so that people are forced to improvise, forming a "pidgin," or a sort of stopgap language. That improvised system may then become a fully fledged language with native speakers over time, as it did for Hawaiian Creole English or Jamaican Patois.

The case of Nicaraguan Sign Language is not exactly like that of a pidgin, because it didn't come from the combination of already existing languages. But in the early stages of development, it shared characteristics with pidgins. It allowed for basic, functional communication, but it lacked consistency and rules. It required a lot of guessing and context to work.

How Structure Is Made

When the next generation of younger students came to the school, they observed the communication system that the older kids were using and started to use in it a more consistent way. For example, instead of pantomiming an action and pointing to people to show who did the action or who the action affected, they used a compact gesture that itself showed the agent or recipient of the action. They were no longer "laying out a scene" as much as inflecting a verb.

They also began to condense longer, more mimetic descriptions into compact, complex sentences. Long chains of descriptions and actions were transformed into phrases that showed multiple features of meaning at once — for example, they produced prepositional notions like "on," "off," "to," and "under" simultaneously with nouns and verbs using a systematic spatial grammar. For example, instead of miming falling with your whole body, you might use your hands in a systematic way to index objects—a person, a mountain—and then, in a single motion of your hands, a person falling down a mountain. Signs started to take on a more predictable meaning and form.

New Insights About the Nature of Language

Linguists watched this all unfold. Never before had they been able to get such detailed documentation of the beginning of a language as it was happening. They videotaped the students from each successive generation and compared the groups to each other. They found that the kids who came into the school at a young age, 5 or 6, were the engine of making the language rule-based and consistent. There is something about the minds of young children that makes it possible to build language out or mere communication. The structure was not in the system they were exposed to, but in themselves.

However, the children didn't create language out of nothing. It was crucial that they had been exposed to an existing communication system with a community. That system developed some patterns due to people in the community adjusting to each other over time, and the longer that community had been in place, the better the input the children had to work with. It wasn't just the children who had started at the youngest ages who had the most linguistic skill, but the children who had come in youngest and latest in the program. Language creation needs the flexible minds of children, but it also needs the patterns that emerge from active interaction among members of a culture.

The Birth of New Sign Language in Nicaragua

Written by Arika Okrent April 26, 2018

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