The birth of a language: Central Taurus Sign Language
With Rabia Ergin, Ray Jackendoff, Ariel M. Cohen-Goldberg, Carol Padden, Deniz Ilkbasaran, and Irit Meir
In 2013, my colleagues and I discovered an emerging sign language in the south-central region of Turkey. Fellow graduate student, Rabia Ergin, has approximately 20 deaf family members who live between two rural mountain villages and are isolated from any existing signed or spoken language. They have invented their own sign language from scratch, which we have called Central Taurus Sign Language (CTSL).
Highly structured language is one of the defining characteristics of human beings. How is it that we come to have such complicated linguistic systems? How much language is encoded in our genes, and how much arises because we are all raised by fluent language users and have been for generations? For ethical reasons, of course we cannot experimentally study the contribution of genetics by isolating people from language. Because CTSL emerged in isolation, it can serve as a natural version of this experiment. By understanding the structure that CTSL shares, and does not share, with established languages we can get a glimpse into the human capacity for language in the absence of a linguistic model.