In DepthLINGUISTICS

How sign languages evolve

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Science  22 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6284, pp. 392-393
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6284.392

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Summary

Most sign languages have been around for centuries. But a few have emerged only in recent decades, offering linguists a unique opportunity to watch how languages evolve in real time. Now, a new study presented at the Evolution of Language meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, last month shows that young speakers of one of these languages—Israeli Sign Language—have come up with richer, more grammatically complex ways of signing that use ever more parts of the body for different purposes. Most intriguing for linguists: These changes seem to happen in a predictable order from one generation to the next. That same order has been seen in young sign languages around the world, showing in visible fashion how linguistic complexity unfolds over time and leading some linguists to say they may have a new model for the evolution of language.

  • * in New Orleans, Louisiana