What I’ve Learned at Gallaudet: Language Emergence

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Some Questions on Language Emergence: How did Sign Languages Originate?

In the ASL 403: Communication in Gestures course I took under Dr. Mike Kemp, I had the opportunity to learn about language emergence. I had never studied the topic before and, through our Discussion Board conversations with Dr. Kemp and the other students, I was able to discover a whole new controversial realm of language that I had no idea existed.

I suppose that language is one of the many everyday things that we take for granted. I mean, how many times have you been talking then suddenly stopped and thought, “Wow, I am using language. I have the God-given ability to communicate my thoughts and ideas to others. How am I able to do that?” 

Let’s just go ahead and say “never.”

I had never thought about what communication is or how we do it. However, it is fascinating when you start to think about it.

Being a Christian, I believe in subjecting science to the Bible instead of subjecting the Bible to science because, no matter how smart we think we are or how much much research we do, we always can make mistakes and we later find out that we were wrong and the Bible was right all along. I am telling you this ahead of time so that you understand how I am going to lead this discussion. If you do not like reading things from a Biblical worldview, then please do not feel like you have to subject yourself to reading this. However, if you are open to asking questions and thinking of language in a whole new way by analyzing some of these ideas and thoughts on your own, then read on!

Dr. Kemp said that, in our Gestures class, “we [were] observing a ‘new language’ emerging from our participation.” That got me to thinking. Can people create their own language? I had always believed that language is God-created. I still believe that. But now I had to think about how language develops, emerges, changes, is learned, and how it is passed on from generation to generation. I know that God gives us the innateability to acquire language and use language. It is how we communicate. Without it, we could not have relationships witheach other, or more importantly, with God.

What made this subject more difficult to tackle, however, was that I already knew how spoken language(s) originated, but I knew nothing about how sign languages are created. So, to figure out how sign language(s) emerge, I had to go back to the beginning–the very beginning.

I knew that, in the beginning of time, there was one common (spoken) language. I was not sure how sign language fit into that, but I knew that there had to be Deaf people around during that time, so I assumed that there was one sign language as well. The Bible says in Genesis 11:1, “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.”

This verse is supported by biological, Biblical, and linguistic evidence. Biologically speaking, humans emerged from one location: somewhere around the Ethiopia/northern Africa region. Scientists say that the oldest human fossils were found in Ethiopia. They say that these fossils support DNA and molecular evidence. In my Biology class’ textbook, I read that studies of mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited) show that “all living humans inherited their mitochondrial DNA from a common ancestral woman” (pg. 405, Biology: Concepts and Connections, 5th Ed., Campbell, Reece, Taylor, and Simon, 2008). Tracing the mutations of the Y Chromosome (paternally inherited) and comparing them from “males of various geographic regions, researchers were able to infer divergence from a common African ancestor” (pg. 405, Biology: Concepts and Connections, 5th Ed., 2008).

I would agree withscientists on the point that mitochondrial DNA came from one woman and that the Y Chromosome points to one common ancestor. I believe those ancestors to be Adam and Eve. The only thing that I disagree with is that I think they may be a few miles off of the exact starting place.  The Bible pinpoints it as being “a garden in the east, in Eden” (Gen. 2:8) where “A river…flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The…Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah….The Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The…Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the…Euphrates” (Gen. 2:10-14). Of course, no one died in the Garden of Eden because Adam and Eve were kicked out after they ate the fruit, so there would not be any “oldest human fossils” there, which still does not disprove what the Bible says.

Linguistically speaking, I learned in Linguistics 263 taught by Dr. Susan Mather, that languages begin with complex rules and syntax and, as time passes, that languages become more simple (or efficient may be a better word). This makes sense if you believe that God created language (since He is a Higher Being, He can create complex languages out of nothing). Then, over time, we would simplify the language (since that’s a trademark of a healthy language–one that is constantly changing and becoming more efficient over time). From an evolutionary perspective however, this is contrary and detrimental to the idea of the cave-man-to-intelligent-man theory since Evolutionists believe that we started out with grunts and groans and slowly created a more complex language.

All of these studies show that language originated from one place, one time, and one couple–one man and one woman. It would make sense to assume that two people would only need one language to communicate with one another. They would have passed this one language to their children and so on. There would have been no need for other languages (though there could have been other dialects of the same language, but they would have been able to understand each other anyways). With that in mind, I came to the part where this one language multiplied into many languages.

I also know that at the Tower of Babel, “the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth (Genesis 11:9).” At this point, God created several/many different languages and their complexity. The people could not have been working on the Tower of Babel and then suddenly, at the same time, created their own languages. God did it. Then, not only did He create different languages and cause the people to be unable to communicate with each other, but He also “scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” If there were not dialects before this point, there would be now. As people moved to distant regions, they would encounter different climates and environments, which would call for more specialized vocabulary, making their languages more unique, differentiated, and unintelligible to others of other dialects and languages.

Now, I am getting to the part that has left me perplexed. Since the Bible does not mention sign language, I am left to wonder whether God confused the languages of the Deaf people, too. I am sure that He did. However, even if God did create different signed languages to prevent the Deaf people from working together to build the Tower, just as He had done with the hearing people and their spoken language, then I am faced with another issue.

After the Tower of Babel, people moved to other parts of the world instead of congregating in one common location. This would have possibly isolated some Deaf people, who, if they had no Deaf children to pass on their language, would have been the first and last to use such a God-given, complex language. Then, suppose a few generations later, another Deaf child is born in that community and there are no other Deaf people to teach him/her sign language. How will that child communicate? Could they ever develop their own communication system or language to use to interact with those around them?

That was and is my dilemma. In my Communication in Gestures course, I was beginning to see that, out of need and through the community of our classmates and professor, we were slowly developing a communication system that may very well have evolved into a language all its own just as this lone Deafchild may have been able develop a communication system and possibly a language with his/her family and neighbors. One of the major hindrancesI have with believing that a complex sign language (or spoken language for that matter) can be created by humans alone is that, for example, in my class, everyone already knew at least two languages (ASL and English) and some even knew a third and fourth language (Spanish, Hebrew, Chinese Sign Language, and Mandarin Chinese were some of them).

Could a person with no linguistic background create a language complete with complex grammar and syntax? We had a starting place. We adopted a grammar similar to ASL and English. We used many of the same classifiers as is in ASL. If we did not already have that lexicon (limited and defined constraints for handshapesand movements, etc. that were acceptable within our community) to begin with, could we have still gestured with each other to the point of creating a language?

Studies show that babies are born with the capacity to learn language. Obviously, humans are also born with a need to communicate. However, that does not mean that humans can create language out of that need. This just shows that we can learn and use whatever language we are exposed to.

Before this class, I thought a man-made language was impossible. I do still believe that God created all spoken languages. But the Bible never mentions sign language, so I am left to contemplate whether it is truly possible for us to develop language within our small community apart from God’s work. Even if it is possible, it would not be completely apart from God’s handiwork because God created our minds to be able to learn language and use it.

 *In honor of the late Dr. Mike Kemp*

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