Can linguists study emerging sign languages without contaminating or killing them?

Connie de Vos was sitting on her hands. It was 2006, her first stay in the Balinese village of Bengkala, and visitors had come every night to her house, sitting on the floor of the front patio, eating fruit or durian-flavoured candies and drinking tea. About eight to 10 people were there now, hands flitting in the shadows, chatting away in Kata Kolok, the local sign language. Where is the next ceremony? When is the next funeral? Who just died?

Kata Kolok was created in Bengkala about 120 years ago and has some special features such as sticking out your tongue to add “no” or “not” to a verb. And unlike American Sign Language, or ASL, in which people move their mouths silently as they sign, you also smack your lips gently, which creates a faint popping sound, to indicate that an action has finished.

“If you walk through the village at six, people start to take their baths, getting ready for dinner,” De Vos recalls. “You can hear this sound – pah pah pah – all through the village.”

A graduate student at Radboud University in the Netherlands at the time, De Vos had come to Bengkala to be the first linguist to map Kata Kolok’s grammar and list all of its signs. At that time, she says, it was “kind of untouched”, having emerged in an isolated community with a relatively high number of deaf people. Like similar “village sign languages” that were starting to be identified in the 2000s, it was rich research material. She knew that being first to describe it would be a feather in her cap.

But studying any phenomenon risks changing it. Archaeologists know that breathing inside an ancient tomb can raise its humidity, while zoologists attracting wild chimpanzees with food have to hope it does not alter the politics of the troop.

Very young languages offer an opportunity to see how languages emerge and evolve – and therefore what the origin of all languages might have been like. But some linguists have wondered how pure these circumstances really are. They worry that studying one of these sign languages – which may have only a handful of users – introduces an outside influence that could alter its development.

So De Vos was sitting on her hands – deliberately not using signs from other languages – when she was in Bengkala. If there was any chance that she had changed the course of Kata Kolok, her research would be less valid, and its relevance to learning about the natural evolution of languages diminished. The only problem is that shielding a language like Kata Kolok for scientific benefit might not actually be in the best interests of the community that uses it.

“Each of these communities is like a natural experiment. With our modern human brains, if you were to develop a language right now, what would it look like?” De Vos asks. “We have an opportunity to see multiples of those instances happen, and that’s really valuable.”

From Ban Khor, a sign language in Thailand, to Adamorobe in Ghana, linguists have described about two dozen such languages and suspect that many more exist. There are various names for them. Some researchers call them “young” or “emerging” languages, especially when the focus is on how they are evolving. Others call them “village” or “micro” sign languages, which reflects the size and isolation of the communities where they spring up. A less frequent but no less apt term is “shared” sign languages, because they are often used by deaf and hearing people alike.

They tend to arise in geographically or culturally isolated communities with an unusually high prevalence of deafness, often because of marriages between cousins. In such places, formal education is not commonly available and there’s no access to the national sign language, so over years or decades people have invented signs and ways to combine those signs.

Used by so few people, these fragile languages are endangered as soon as they appear. Someone else more rich and powerful is always eager to get rid of them or tell the signers to use some other language instead. Sometimes those powerful forces are deaf associations that look down on all things rural and remote.

And because the signers do not always agree which signs mean what or how to use them, these languages can seem wobbly and half-baked. They are undoubtedly languages in their own right, however, given that signers have used them their whole lives for everyday communication.

Studies of these languages have already revolutionised what was thought about sign languages. For instance, it was assumed that all sign languages, big or small, use the space around the body to represent time in the same way. The past is located behind the signer’s body, the present right in front and the future further in front. But village sign languages often do things differently: Kata Kolok, for example, does not have a timeline at all.

De Vos is quick to say Kata Kolok speakers still think and talk about the future and the past. There are just no designated linguistic structures to talk about them other than, for example, referring to events the speakers all know about.

Studying village sign languages clearly reveals much about how sign languages are unique. But because most of these village sign languages appear to be only 30 to 40 years old, enough for three generations’ worth of evolution, they also raise the extraordinary opportunity to witness the birth of a language in real time. Researchers can follow how linguistic structures like word order emerge and change from the first generation to those that follow. Are these changes innate to our human linguistic abilities or do they come from somewhere else?

The opportunity to answer such questions has sparked interest in village sign languages among linguists, and the allure of “discovering” a new language can be hard to resist.

Given the high stakes, and the potential to exert unwanted influence on these fragile languages, researchers have been arguing for years about how to handle them, ever since the first young sign language was identified.

Prime directive policy

When Judy Kegl encountered what later came to be called Nicaraguan Sign Language (or ISN, for Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, there was no precedent to follow.

This language had been created around 1980, when deaf students at a school in the capital, Managua, used their linguistic intuitions to pull together signs they brought from home.

From the beginning, Kegl says, she did not use ASL in her interactions with the students. “I made an effort to just use gesture,” she explains. “By using gesture and not using ASL, the students taught me; they really took on a role of teaching me. If I’d come using ASL, it wouldn’t have happened. If they didn’t see that my goal was to learn their language, they might not have taken me under their wing.”

It was not her aim to preserve the language, but to ensure that the way it developed was the same as it would have been if she was not there. Referring to