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Book describes village of sign language

September 17, 2007

By JULIE REED, Associated Press Writer

“Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind” (Simon & Schuster, 354 pages. $27), by Margalit Fox: It sounds like a curious fairy-tale — a signed language created out of thin air, spoken in a remote desert village by hearing and deaf alike and witnessed by few outsiders

Yet Al-Sayyid is no mirage but rather an astonishing true story engrossingly told by Margalit Fox of her journey to this remarkable signing Brigadoon.

A New York Times journalist who trained as a linguist, Fox seems uniquely suited to unravel the mysteries of a place where people speak a signed language unlike any other in the world. She accompanies four linguists — two from the United States and two from Israel — who are studying the language and its speakers. They are working on an illustrated dictionary, the first ever documentary record of the villagers’ signed communication.

The Bedouins of Al-Sayyid aren’t nomads; they have lived in an obscure corner of Israel for nearly 200 years. It is an isolated, traditional community where intermarriage is encouraged and for the last 70 years a form of inherited deafness has been passed down from one generation to the next. Of the 3,500 residents, nearly 150 are deaf, an incidence 40 times that of the general population.

An indigenous signed language has sprung up among the deaf villagers, but what is so incredible about Al-Sayyid is that many hearing villagers can also speak it.

“It is quite unremarkable to be deaf here,” Fox writes. “In Al-Sayyid there is neither deaf culture nor deaf identity politics, because there is little hegemony of the hearing.”

Wendy Sandler of the University of Haifa is the research team’s leader. She — along with Irit Meir, also of the University of Haifa, Carol Padden of the University of California, San Diego (the only deaf member of the group), and Mark Aronoff of Stony Brook University in New York — have set up various tests that they will administer to selected residents of Al-Sayyid to determine the basic vocabulary and possible grammatical structure of the language. Villagers will be videotaped so that the team can study their responses.

“If the linguists can isolate the formal elements that make Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language a language,” Fox writes, “they will have helped illuminate one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.”

The sections of the book that document the residents of Al-Sayyid and the village itself read like a fascinating and unique travelogue, and Fox paints a vivid picture of the different personalities of many of the residents and of their traditions and lifestyle. These chapters are interspersed with discussions of the evolution of signed languages, in particular American Sign Language (ASL), how studying sign language can illuminate the examination of language itself and where in the brain sign language is created.

Fox is an engaging teacher when she details ASL and other signed languages. We learn, for example, that ASL is historically based on French Sign Language and that speakers of ASL and British Sign Language won’t be able to understand each other.

However, when she talks about linguistics, neurolinguistics and neuropsychology, and how each of these disciplines relates to signed languages, she is often pedantic and dry.

The book is thoroughly researched. Fox quotes from “a welter of different technical books and articles,” and this is all too apparent in the work. For the layperson who isn’t trained in linguistic theory, some of these chapters will seem quite tedious.

When we’re back in Al-Sayyid, though, the text springs to life. The research team is rushing to get as much documentation as they can on Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, as the youngest members of the community are being sent to schools where Israeli Sign Language (ISL) is taught, and it’s infiltrating the villagers’ pure language.

Documenting the language as it is now, Fox writes, “will help answer one of the most fundamental questions that can be asked about our species: What is a human language, and how is it made in the mind?”


  1. Jane
    March 15, 2008 at 1:24 pm
  2. Aron
    March 15, 2008 at 2:44 pm
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