The discovery of a new language can help explain how we communicate

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Researchers Lynn Hou, Kate Mesh and Hilaria Cruz

Most of the news about minority languages is that they’re endangered or dying off, and the only new languages we hear about are those created for Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters. But sometimes, linguists find a previously unrecorded language — and when they do, it’s a sign language.

The reasons for this discovery aren’t mysterious. “Because of the sporadic incidence of deafness, the generation-to-generation transmission of language is disrupted,” says Richard Meier, a linguist and sign language expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “Deafness may appear in communities that had not previously had it. Because of their hearing loss, the deaf are likely unable to acquire the local spoken language. But the community may lack an established sign language.” The result? People create languages.

On her first fieldwork trip in 2010, linguist Lynn Hou, who is deaf, and her colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, Hilaria Cruz, from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, visited the villages of San Juan Quiahije and Cieneguilla. Cruz had grown up signing to deaf family members. On their trip, Hou met some deaf adults and learned the signs they use. She suspected that they weren’t using Mexican Sign Language.

Several years later, Hou returned to Oaxaca with a collaborator, linguist Kate Mesh. There they confirmed that people were using a unique sign language that had been invented locally. In the spring of 2014, Hou received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to study Chatino Sign Language. (Chatino is the Spanish name for the indigenous people of the area as well as the name of their spoken language. […]

(From AlJazeera America, Michael, Erard, 17.04.2014)

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