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Book Review: Talking Hands – What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind by Margalit Fox

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The meaning of a remote organic sign language of a secret tribe in the Sinai Peninsula is the focus of Margalit Fox’s new book Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind. The book tells of the detective work of linguists attempting to decipher the integrity of an isolated form of sign language, and in the process of such an endeavor to illuminate the goal of linguistics, what Noam Chomsky defined as an aim:

…to discover these systems (of language), and more deeply, to discover the fixed, invariant biological endowment that enables each child to develop a very rich and highly articulated system of knowledge on the basis of quite fragmentary and limited evidence.  

In Al Sayyid, Israel, the inhabiting tribe has a notable deaf population because the recessive allele of deafness is a little less recessive there. What is found in that sandy burg is unheard of – it is a newly identified sign language. It's enough to spur four academicians from Israel and the United States to travel the Desert of Pharan to observe the language and investigate the gesticulating. One startling facet of the Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (or ABSL) study was realized by Stony Brook University professor Doctor Mark Aronoff:

What we expected going into this village was that the language would be modality-driven. What we found instead was that the language was quite dramatically driven by syntax … That to me, is what’s most amazing about the word-order facts with the Bedouins. It’s not driven by communicative need as far as I can tell. People just have a drive for structure in their behavior.  

Along with the sophisticated element of syntax and word-order there was another shocker. "But instead of being built from smaller structural units," Aronoff notes, "as the words of established sign languages are, the words of ABSL appeared to be unanalyzed wholes, little lumps of language that can’t be broken down further.”

Talking Hands is an adroit and dexterous gesture about a blossomed language that is not shorthanded on fascination. When it comes to unearthing the Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language Margalit Fox has an embargo on the argot and gets spectacular with the vernacular.

More information on Margalit Fox’s new book can be obtained on the web and her reporting appears in the New York Times.

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