The Why Files The Why Files --

4 FEB 2005

Word Orders. Orders Word.
Word order matters, but we usually take it for granted. In English, if "John shot Sam," Sam gets the ambulance and John gets the paddy wagon. But what can you make of "John Sam shot?" Who was holding the gun? Were they both holding it? If so, who got shot?

A Bedouin community in the Negev Desert invented its own sign language. The importance of word order in language got a boost from a new study of a sign language that recently arose in a Bedouin community in the Negev Desert of present-day Israel. In the 70 years since Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) originated, it has developed a consistent subject-object-verb word order: "John Sam shot" means John pulled the trigger, and Sam took the bullet. ABSL got its start in a Bedouin village after two sons of the village founder developed a genetic defect that caused early and complete deafness. The Bedouins are an insular ethnic community that used to live a nomadic life in the Negev.

Linguists don't get many chances to watch the early stages of a new language, and they were surprised to see how rapidly the word-order convention developed, says Mark Aronoff, a professor of linguistics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Short order
ABSL stands out from other emerging languages because it arose in a stable community and is apparently not a blend of older languages. Thus it is presumably a better example of how language was first invented, and a fascinating window into the human brain, the source of all language. Congenital deafness started in the community only three generations ago, and the researchers were studying the second generation of sign speakers. Aronoff, who took part in the study, says the agreement on word order, "seems to happen very quickly. People are prepared in some way. We are looking at the second generation, and it's already highly structured."

Sign languages have been invented dozens of times around the world over the past century, Aronoff adds. One appeared on the island of Martha's Vineyard more than 100 years ago, but it died out before being recorded or studied. "It looks like when you have a small group of people together, they will create a language," says Aronoff.

In Al-Sayyid, where Arabic is the spoken language, deafness is widespread, and many hearing people also use sign language. Deaf people, however, do not know Arabic, Aronoff says. Although some of the kids are learning Hebrew at school, neither Arabic nor Hebrew uses ABSL's subject-object-verb word order, one indication that the surrounding languages have little influence on ABSL.

A sense of order
When Aronoff and his colleagues began working at Al-Sayyid about five years ago, they intended to focus on vocabulary, the physical forms of the signs, and the use of body, but after collecting stories and descriptions of simple events, Aronoff says, "Word order jumped out at us. It was so standardized ... and even more consistent than in American Sign Language."

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language signer telling stories.
Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language signers telling stories. Courtesy Shai Davidi, Sign Language Research Lab, University of Haifa.
Another Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language signer telling stories.

While ABSL uses subject-object-verb ("John Sam shot"), English relies on subject-verb-object ("John shot Sam"). Word order feeds comprehension, but it might also reflect a deeper need, Aronoff speculates. "I think people like ritualized order, like dancing or shaking hands. People like to develop these complex structures."

Furthermore, the research indicates a predisposition to understanding the world in terms of subjects, objects and verbs: John (subject) shot (verb) Sam (object). Only not necessarily in that order.

-- David Tenenbaum

The Emergence of Grammar: Systematic Structure in a New Language, Wendy Sandler et al, PNAS Early Edition.

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