All animals communicate: Birds sing, insects release chemicals, monkeys produce alarm calls, honeybees dance, dolphins whistles, etc. in order to share information with the other members of their species. We, humans, use language, which is distinct and unique from all other ways of communication in that we manage to express unlimited number of thoughts using unlimited number of sentences. Our ability to express specificity in meaning and flexibility to use language in novel situations are the hallmarks of our communication.

rabia_templateThe crucial questions here are: How did we create it? How do the properties of human language get their start from scratch? What are the essential ingredients of a human language? No one knows for sure how or when the first human language arose. Solving the puzzle regarding the origins of the human communication is one of the hardest questions of science because there are no fossil records revealing why and how human languages came about. There are fossils of skulls but these skulls cannot tell us anything further than the overall shape and size of human brains. There are also ancient written tablets presenting evidence for what human languages looked like in ancient times, only to tell us that they had the same structural complexity thousands of years ago as they have today. Lack of such hard evidence does not necessarily mean that we cannot or we should not try to understand why and how languages might have emerged, and how they might have evolved. There are actually ways to approach these questions with concrete evidence.

Solving the puzzle regarding the origins of the human communication is one of the hardest questions of science.

One way of tackling this question would be to trace the development of all of the existing human languages back to their origins and investigate their essential ingredients in the ancient times. Adopting such a method would only take us to a dead end because spoken languages have mostly evolved from older languages very slowly over many millennia and we do not know how they influenced each other. Another way would be to study pidgin languages of the modern times. When speakers of different languages end up living in the same place, they create a common language to communicate with each other, which are called pidgin languages. Pidgins come about, for instance, by borrowing words from one language, some rules from the other language, yet some other words and/or rules from another language. They display the beginning of a new language, but they are not entirely new because they originate from existing languages.

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Family members communicating with their own developed sign language.

The ideal language to study would be the one in its infancy, a pure language developed with no outside influence and not yet sunk under the weight of its complex grammar accumulated over centuries. One way to do this would be to put the forbidden experiment, termed by Roger Shattuck, into practice. The literary work, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy, Victor, who apparently had grown up all alone in the wild with no human company. Observing and documenting what an isolated human brain is capable of doing in the absence of social intervention could potentially tell us how we develop language, if we develop language under such circumstances at all. Needless to say, such an experiment is clearly unethical in the modern world because acquiring or inventing a language requires cooperation through social interaction. It is completely inhuman to deprive people of these integral pieces of their existence.

The ideal language to study would be the one in its infancy, a pure language developed with no outside influence and not yet sunk under the weight of its complex grammar accumulated over centuries.

IMG_1500 copy 2The good news is that we do not have to resort to such unethical methods. There are communities in remote areas of the modern world involving many deaf members who need to communicate but cannot speak because they cannot hear. These are small close communities with small genetic pools and it is very common for close relatives to get married with each other. Therefore, they keep the gene for deafness inside the community. As the deaf individuals do not have access to the spoken languages surrounding them, they create their own brand-new sign languages. This kind of sign languages come closer to the forbidden experiment than any other circumstance, because they emerge naturally without the influence of mature languages. Central Taurus Sign Language (CTSL) is one of them that emerged within the last half century in a remote isolated village in south-central Turkey. The deafness in this village is mainly within a single family involving 23 deaf members –You may wonder how we found this family and their language. It was not so hard; I’m a native member of this family!

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The family tree of Rabia. The black squares and circles indicate deaf members of her family.

CTSL provides us with an atypical language learning environment –actually a language creation environment—, because the entire village is a natural lab setting where both deaf and hearing people can use this language at varying proficiency levels. Another striking fact about CTSL is that the very first deaf creators of this language are alive today. It is so young that its development and history can be traced in a way that cannot be done in spoken languages. Moreover, its words and rules are the pure product of the signers’ minds using them created without the influence of prior knowledge coming from an existing language. Thus, CTSL, along with the mounting evidence from other emerging sign languages, can shed light on the initial stages of a language, under what conditions a language develops and what sort of developmental paths it follows.

 

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