The project “Endangered Sign Languages in Village Communities” (also called “Village Sign”) focuses on sign languages in rural communities with a high incidence of hereditary deafness, so-called village sign languages. From the 1960s, linguists have shown that on all relevant levels of linguistic structure, signed and spoken languages are equivalent. From a primary interest in western sign languages, research shifted in the 1990s to sign languages in urban areas in other parts of the world, such as Japan, Brazil, India, or Jordan. The most recent addition towards a comprehensive typology of sign languages is the documentation and description of village sign languages.
Dr Connie de Vos - Project manager
Hasan Dikyuva - Research assistant
Cesar Ernesto Escobedo Delgado - Research assistant
For further information about this project, please contact Prof Ulrike Zeshan:
International Institute for Sign Languages & Deaf Studies
Vernon Annexe- VE028
+44 (0)1772 893104
Few village sign languages have been documented, but the first studies show that their societal and linguistic structures can differ radically from those of urban sign languages. The rural signing communities often show special adaptations to deafness. For example, in many communities most of the hearing people use the signed language as well. Linguistic analyses have shown counterexamples to a number of supposedly universal features of sign languages, including the grammatical use of signing space and the use of entity classifiers.
All known village sign languages are endangered, usually because of pressure from larger urban sign languages. Ironically, it is often the success of the larger sign language communities in urban centres, their recognition and subsequent spread, which leads to the endangerment of village sign languages. A number of village sign languages are in immediate danger of becoming extinct without ever having been documented.The Village Sign project aims to document and describe the following village sign languages:
The Village Sign project focuses on three central research questions:
1. How do village sign languages challenge received views about the characteristics of “sign language” as a unified type of language?
Over the past 30 years, sign language research has come to expect a particular catalogue of linguistic structures to occur in sign languages. For example:
The Village Sign project aims to test these assumptions against new data from village sign languages. Inasmuch as village sign languages may provide counterevidence to some of these presumed sign language universals, the outcomes of the project may challenge linguists to re-evaluate the notion of “sign language” as a unified type.
2. What role does the sociolinguistic setting of these village sign languages play in relation to the differences between rural and urban sign languages?
The relationship between sociolinguistic setting and language structure in village sign language is addressed form both anthropological and sociolinguistic perspectives. The Village Sign project aims to describe the village sign languages on the following parameters:
3. How does our perspective on language modality, that is, signed versus spoken language, change if we consider a wider range of both urban and village sign languages?
In addition to challenging the view of “sign language” as a unified type, the Village Sign project also aims to reposition a wider range of sign languages with respect to a wide range of spoken languages. Only a wide range of documented sign languages, including evidence from village sign languages, can really lead to empirically substantiated generalisations about how linguistic structures relate to the modality of signed languages in comparison to spoken languages. Current generalisations about language modality may need to be re-assessed.
1. Development of linguistic and sociolinguistic/anthropological research protocols
The Village Sign project develops both linguistic and sociolinguistic/anthropological research protocols. Researchers who are not sign linguists will eventually be able to use these protocols. We currently work on the following protocols:
2. Development of ethical guidelines
Anastasia Bauer, Sibaji Panda, and Ulrike Zeshan develop ethical guidelines in working with village sign communities. They form the ethical support strand for other project members with respect to these issues.
3. Development of fieldwork materials
The research group develops fieldwork materials for the elicitation of linguistic data in the areas of colour, kinship, and number. The fieldwork support strand works on creating various interactive games and other materials for elicitation, which can be shared with other researchers.
4. The Village Sign Corpus
The Village Sign Corpus will be a digital, browsable collection of village sign language videos. Phil Howarth, Connie de Vos, and Waldemar Schwager are responsible for the creation of the Village Sign Corpus. For more information, please contact Connie de Vos.
5. Applied work with local communities
Across the project partnership, we aim to establish a Heritage Language Project as a community outreach activity in the target countries to raise awareness in the local community about the value of the endangered minority sign language as part of the local linguistic heritage. At some field sites, we work with local communities to create educational opportunities for deaf children in the village, using the local sign language in the classroom.
The Endangered Sign Languages in Village Communities project is a so-called EuroBABEL project, an acronym which stands for Better Analyses Based on Endangered Languages, funded by the European Science Foundation EUROCORES Programme. The main purpose of EuroBABEL funding is “ to promote empirical research on underdescribed endangered languages, both spoken and signed, that aims at changing and refining our ideas about linguistic structure in general and about language in relation to cognition, social and cultural organization and related issues in a trans-/ multi-disciplinary perspective.” More information the EuroBABEL programme can be found at the website of the European Science Foundation. Together with the Village Sign Project, four other EuroBABEL projects were funded:
Many of the findings from the Village Sign project are presented in Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights (2012), edited by Professor Ulrike Zeshan and Dr Connie de Vos, and published by De Gruyter Mouton and Ishara Press. This book is the first compilation of a substantial number of different village sign languages. Blending anthropological and linguistic perspectives, the volume examines the social dynamics as well as the language structures of these unique rural communities.
This project includes teams from Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Israel and the UK.
Yolngu Sign Language
Research project: Yolngu Sign Language (Arnhem Land, Australia), Kata Kolok (Bali, Indonesia), and Country Sign (Jamaica)
This project is mainly concerned with the documentation and linguistic description of Yolngu Sign Language, Kata Kolok, and Country Sign. Waldemar Schwager, who is currently writing a PhD thesis on word classes in Kata Kolok, German Sign Language, and Russian Sign Language, will be responsible for the Kata Kolok analyses in this post-doc position. Anastasia Bauer will be writing her PhD thesis on Yolngu Sign Language. Keren Cumberbatch at the University of the West Indies is coordinating the documentation and description of Country Sign. The project as a whole pursues the following aims:
Adamorobe Sign Language
Signing varieties of Mali Sign Language
Documentation and Analysis of West African Sign Languages
Victoria Nyst previously documented and described Adamorobe Sign Language of Ghana (Nyst, 2007), as well as the Bamako variety of Mali Sign Language during an ongoing documentation project called Projet Langue des Signes Malienne. For the Village Sign project she will collect additional data from the varieties of Mali Sign Language used in Bamako and the Dogon region, and consolidate the data of Adamorobe Sign Language from her PhD research into a digitized corpus. The three different sign languages in this project provide a sample of several types of communities using local sign languages in West Africa: home signers and small pockets of signers (Dogon), urban Deaf communities without formal education (Bamako) and ‘deaf villages’ (Adamorobe). This allows an evaluation of the effect of social setting on the one hand and the influence of areal features on the other.
Ban Khor Sign Language
Dr. Angela Nonaka has been doing fieldwork in Ban Khor for over a decade, including a 12-month fieldwork period in 2003. During her work with the community she has collected an extensive corpus of 100+ hours of language in situ of talk and interaction across multiple contexts of everyday village life. To date, however, linguistic analysis remains limited to lexical examination topics of traditional interest to anthropology: names, colour terms, kin terms, and numbers. In the Village Sign project, she will share her skills as an anthropologist in developing a sociolinguistic/anthropological research protocol attuned to sign languages of rural communities. Moreover, she will mine her corpus for linguistic structures central to the Village Sign project for cross-linguistic comparison. During her fieldwork, she will also collect new data based on linguistic elicitation methods.
Algerian Jewish Sign Language
Research project: The Sign Language of Algerian Jews
This research project aims to document and study a sign language that developed in isolated Jewish communities in Algeria, in the sub-Saharan M'zab region. In some towns, notably Ghardaia, there was a relatively large population of deaf people (2.5%), and consequently, a sign language, used by both deaf and hearing members of the communities, emerged and developed. The Jewish community in Ghardaia, as other Jewish communities in Algeria, left the country by 1962, when Algeria was granted independence. Some immigrated to France and some to Israel. Ghardaian families with deaf members, who used to communicate via the sign language, brought the language with them to Israel and to France. Although the deaf Algerians met members of the Deaf communities in their new countries and learned their language (Israeli Sign Language in Israel, and French Sign Language in France), they continued to use their own sign language among themselves. The language is still used today by deaf and hearing family members in both countries. We do not have an estimate yet of the number of deaf signers and hearing signers of the language today. According to a rough estimate, there are at least a few dozens, but we do not have more precise information as yet.
Algerian Jewish Sign Language is unique in having moved from the village's original location to a new one, in another country. Therefore it offers a rare opportunity to investigate the influence of immigration on a village sign language. However, this unique socio-linguistic characteristic also makes the language seriously endangered. Most Deaf Algerian Jews in Israel married spouses from other origins. Therefore, most of them do not use the language with their spouses and children, only with their parents (if still alive), siblings and relatives from their original family. With their spouses and children they use Israeli Sign Language (ISL). Therefore, most of the Deaf Algerian signers in Israel are bilingual – in Algerian sign language and ISL, and they code-switch a lot. The younger generation does not acquire the language, and therefore it is likely to disappear within a generation. Interestingly, hearing family members are less influenced by ISL (as they are not part of the larger Deaf community), and therefore are more likely to use the language with other deaf people. Therefore, it is important to study both Deaf and hearing language users.
The aim of the project is to investigate and document the vocabulary and linguistic structure of the language, and the socio-linguistic characteristics of the community. The research questions are:
Alipur Sign Language
Mardin Sign Language
Yucatec Mayan Sign Language
Comparative investigation of village sign languages
There are three focus areas for this project at iSLanDS:
1. Data collection for Village Sign Corpus
This project aims at creating a data corpus of natural conversational data for Alipur Sign Language (India), Mardin Sign Language (Turkey) and Yucatec Mayan Sign Language (Mexico).
2. Linguistic comparison of village sign languages
The project aims at systematic comparative work on language data from village sign languages. Sibaji Panda, Hasan Dikyuva, and Ernesto Delgado have already made several field visits to these communities, and initial data sets have been collected. Research focuses on the following features initially:
In addition, a large corpus of data from Kata Kolok (Bali) is available to postdoctoral researcher Connie de Vos from previous research for further comparison. Kata Kolok is better documented than the other sign languages and can serve as a reference point.
3. Applied and documentary work with communities in “deaf villages”
In Alipur village, multimedia materials suitable for use in the local community are being prepared through a project with the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme headed by Sibaji Panda. A deaf school setting has been created for 15 deaf children in the village, who can now access education through Alipur Sign Language for the first time. A deaf school setting where Kata Kolok is used in the classroom has been created in Bali with the involvement of Connie de Vos. A large language documentation project for Mardin Sign Language began in October 2010.
Adone, D., Bauer, A., Cumberbatch, K. & Maypilama, E.L. (2012) Colour signs in two indigenous sign languages. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Adone, D. & Maypilama, E.L. (2012) Yolngu Sign Language: A sociolinguistic profile. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Bauer, A. (in prep.) The Use of Space and a Typology of Sign Language (preliminary title). PhD thesis to be submitted to the University of Cologne.
De Vos, C. (2011) A signers' village in Bali, Indonesia. Minpaku Anthropology Newsletter 33: 4-5.
De Vos, C. (2012) Kata Kolok: An updated sociolinguistic profile. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.), Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press, 381-386.
De Vos, C. (2012) The Kata Kolok perfective in child signing: Coordination of manual and non-manual components. In U. Zeshan & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press, 127-152.
De Vos, C. & Nyst, V. (2012) EuroBabel workshop on "Rural signing varieties: social dynamics and linguistic structure", 7 November.
De Vos, C., Zeshan, U. & Seyfeddinipur, M. (2012) Workshop during the Endangered Languages Week on "Sign Language Documentation for Field Linguists", 11 May.
De Vos, C. & Zeshan, U. (2011) EuroBabel workshop on "Kinship and Numeral systems from Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Modal Perspectives", 15-16 September.
De Vos, C. & Zeshan, U. (2012) Introduction: Demographic, sociocultural, and linguistic variation across rural signing communities. In Zeshan, U. and De Vos, C. (eds.), Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press, 2-23.
Dikyuva, H. (2012) Mardin Sign Language: A “family sign language” and its user community.
In Zeshan, U. and De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Dikyuva, H. & Zeshan, U. (2012) Documentation of Endangered Sign Languages – The Case of Mardin Sign Language. In Jones, M. & Ogilvie, S. (eds.) Language Endangerment: Documentation, Pedagogy, and Revitalization. Cambridge: CUP.
Dikyuva, H., Escobedo Delgado, C.E., Panda, S. & Zeshan, U. (2012) Working with village sign language communities: A professional dialogue. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Magassouba, M., Nyst, V. & Sylla, K. (2012) Deaf signers in the Douentza, a rural area in Mali. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Meir, I. & Lanesman, S. (2012) Algerian Jewish Sign Language: Sociolinguistic sketch. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Meir, I. & Lanesman, S. (2012) The survival of Algerian Jewish Sign Language alongside Israeli Sign Language in Israel. In Zeshan, U. and De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Nonaka, A. (2009) Estimating size, scope, and membership of the speech/sign communities of undocumented indigenous/village sign languages: The Ban Khor case study. Language & Communication 29: 210-229.
Nonaka, A. (2010) Interrogatives in Ban Khor Sign Language: A preliminary description. In Mathur, G. and Napoli, D.J. (eds.) Deaf Around the World: The Impact of Language, 194-220.
Nonaka, A. (2010) A PowerPoint presentation for use by individuals trained at the sign language interpreter training workshop sponsored by the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and by Ratchasuda College, Bangkok, Thailand, May.
Nonaka, A. (2011) Chapter 26: Language endangerment and language socialization. In Duranti, A., Ochs, E. and Schieffelin, B. (eds.) Handbook of Language Socialization. Blackwell Press, 610-630.
Nonaka, A. (2012) Sociolinguistic sketch of Ban Khor and Ban Khor Sign Language. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press, 373-376.
Nonaka, A. (2012) Language ecological change in Ban Khor, Thailand: An ethnographic case study of village sign language endangerment. In Zeshan, U. & De Vos, C. (eds.) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press, 277-312.
Nyst, V. (2012) Shared Sign Languages. In Pfau, Roland, Steinbach, M. & Woll, B. (eds.) Sign Language: An International Handbook. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Nyst, V. (2012) A Reference Corpus of Adamorobe Sign Language. A digital, annotated video corpus of the sign language used in the village of Adamorobe, Ghana. Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, Universiteit Leiden.
Nyst, V., Magassouba, M. and Sylla, K. (2012) Un Corpus de reference de la Langue des Signes Malienne II. A digital, annotated video corpus of local sign language use in the Dogon area of Mali. Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, Universiteit Leiden.
Nyst, V. (in preparation) Sign language fieldwork. In Orfanidou, E., Woll, B., & Morgan, G. (eds.) Research Methods in Sign Language Studies: A Practical Guide. Malden: Wiley Blackwell.
Zeshan, U. (2010) Village sign languages: A commentary. In Napoli, D.J. and Mathur, G. (eds.) Deaf Around the World: The Impact of Language. Oxford et al: Oxford University Press.
Zeshan, U. & de Vos, C., eds. (2012) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Sign Language Typology Series No. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Zeshan, U., Panda, S., Escobedo Delgado, E., Dikyuva, H. & De Vos, C. (submitted June 2012) Number systems in village sign languages: an approach to cross-modal typology. Linguistic Typology.
Zeshan, U. & Dikyuva, H. (forthc.) Documentation of endangered sign languages: The case of Mardin Sign Language. In Jones, M. & Ogilvie, S. (eds.) Keeping Languages Alive: Documentation, pedagogy and revitalization. Cambridge a.o.: CUP.
Catalogue of structures
The team developed a typologically-informed catalogue of sign language structures as a shared resource across the CRP, listing a wide range of sign language linguistic structures with illustrative examples.
The team collected a corpus of conversational and elicited sign language data from field sites in Mexico and Turkey (10-20 hours each, with full transcriptions for 10% of the data).
With the support of her home institution, The University of Texas at Austin, Dr Nonaka has digitised and preserved video footage spanning over 10 years of research, producing a fully digital Ban Khor and BKSL ethno-linguistic corpus with over 10 TB of data.
We have produced a field guide manual for researchers who may come across village sign languages during field work and need guidance on how to identify and record this. The audience for this manual is linguists (or anthropologists) working on spoken languages with no experience of sign languages. The manual is produced in partnership with academics at SOAS, London, with whom we ran a joint workshop in May 2012. Because of the prominent Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS, this is the ideal partner for co-producing and disseminating the field guide, as SOAS have excellent expertise in this field and a regular taught programme on language documentation where the materials shall be used.
The workshop “Kinship and numeral systems from cross-linguistic and cross-modal perspectives”, (at the iSLanDS Institute, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, on 15-16 September 2011) brought together linguists specialising in spoken language typology and sign language typology in order to advance the research agenda pertaining to a cross-linguistically, cross-modally, and cross-culturally informed typology. This dissemination activity impacted participants in various ways and the wider EUROCORES programme as a result.
In particular, it led Zeshan and Gil to prepare a major grant application to initiate the world’s first research programme on numeral systems from the perspective of cross-modal typology, involving both endangered and non-endangered signed and spoken languages. After the workshop, participants shared some available resources, to make use of pooling expertise and methodologies. Gertrud Boden provided a questionnaire with guidelines, focusing on the kinship domain from a typological viewpoint. Zeshan shared a kinship questionnaire developed for sign language typology, from a linguistic perspective.
Reporters from the BBC Radio 4 programme series “Word of Mouth” interviewed the Village Sign team (at the conference “Language Endangerment: Documentation, Pedagogy, and Revitalization” at The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Cambridge, UK, 25 March 2011) about the impact of our work; this was broadcast on 29 March 2011.
A radio appearance is being organised by E. L. Maypilama.
The UK IP is making two documentary films in collaboration with UCLan’s department of film and media studies. One group is producing a documentary about the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies, and work on the EuroBabel project will feature in this documentary. Another film team travelled to Turkey in April 2011 to make a documentary about research on Mardin Sign Language and its user community.
Dr Nonaka and her American research team developed two bibliographies for sociolinguistic sketch protocols: “An Introduction to Kinship” and “Bibliography: Introduction to General Cartography and Geographic Information Systems.” These two resources will assist researchers with varying backgrounds in ethnographic and linguistic research, and were designed to include a range of both methodological and theoretical sources that span introductory, intermediate, and advanced competency levels. Beyond the EuroBabel Village Sign project, these resources are now being used by other research teams studying endangered languages, both signed and spoken, in the Americas.
CRP members ran stalls about EuroBabel at SOAS Endangered Languages Week in both 2010 and 2011, and at the five-year anniversary event for the iSLanDS Institute in 2012.
Webportal - Under construction
A webportal presenting the corpora compiled for the two African sign languages in the project of the Dutch team.
To support her ongoing study of Ban Khor and Ban Khor Sign Language, Dr Nonaka has been provided with a Village Sign Language Research Lab by her home institution, The University of Texas at Austin. In addition to facilitating large-scale and long-term archiving of data, the lab now serves as a community space University of Texas students and colleagues working in sign language linguistics and Deaf studies.