inbreeding and the spontaneous development of a unique language

amongst some bedouins in southern israel:

“The Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a sign language used by about 150 deaf and many hearing members of the al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev desert of southern Israel. As both deaf and hearing people share a language, deaf people are not stigmatised in this community, and marriage between deaf and hearing people is common.

“The Al-Sayyid community (as of 2004) numbers around 3,000 in total, most of whom trace their ancestry back to the time the village was founded, in the mid-19th century, by a local woman and an Egyptian man. Two of this founding couple’s five sons carried a gene for nonsyndromic, genetically recessive, profound pre-lingual neurosensory deafness. The descendants of the founding couple often married their cousins due to the tribe’s rejection by its neighbours for being ‘foreign fellahin‘. This meant that the gene became homozygous in several members of the family.

“ABSL was first studied in the end of the 1990s by anthropologist Shifra Kisch, and came to worldwide attention in February 2005 when an international group of researchers published a study of the language in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The spontaneous emergence of the language in the last 70 years, which has developed a complex grammar without influence from any other language, is of particular interest to linguists for the insights it provides into the birth of human language.

“ABSL shows a preference for subject–object–verb word order (e.g. ‘WOMAN CHILD FEED’), in marked contrast to the dialect of Arabic spoken by hearing members of the community (SVO), as well as Hebrew (SVO), classical Arabic (VSO), and the predominant sign languages in the region, Israeli Sign Language and Jordanian Sign Language. The authors of the study see ABSL as evidence for the human tendency to construct communication along grammatical lines.”

from the research article in pnas:

“In a detailed anthropological study of deafness in the Al-Sayyid community, Kisch showed that the deaf members of the community are fully integrated into its social structure and are not shunned or stigmatized. Both male and female deaf members of the community marry and always to hearing individuals.”

on the al-sayyid:

“Five percent of the tribe (150 of the 3,000) are deaf, compared to a usual rate of 0.1%. One suggested cause is the high level of inbreeding within the tribe; 27% of marriages are between cousins, and 65% are between couples related in some way, and a quarter of the population carries the deafness gene. This is attributed to the tribe’s historical isolation in the area.

“The tribe’s oral history tells that its first leader moved to the area from Egypt with his wife in the mid-19th century. They settled amongst the other Bedouin tribes around Beersheba and lived off the land. However, other tribes refused to marry their daughters to the al-Sayyids, who were known as ‘the foreign fellahin.’ Eventually the head of the tribe managed to marry his sons to women from the Gaza area. However, their low social status meant that they continued to be rejected locally, and so the next generation began to marry cousins, a trend that continued for five generations. Even today other tribes continue to veto marriage ties with the al-Sayyids.”


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