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Studying an emerging sign language won’t kill it – so what are linguists scared of?

mosaic – Emerging sign languages could reveal how all language evolved – but keeping these fragile languages isolated for research may mean the people who rely on them lose out.

“…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’re 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’re 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 isn’t 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…”

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