hearing relatives to communicate with them.
According to a famous story in Herodotus's History, an Egyptian king tried to ascertain the nature of the first language by isolating two children from birth and waiting to see in what tongue they first spoke. Study of the two new sign languages confirms that King Psammetichus's experiment was misconceived: it is not specific words that are innate, but rather the systems for generating syntax and vocabulary. Among both the Nicaraguan schoolkids and the Al-Sayyid clan, a spontaneous sense of syntax has developed, specifically the distinction as to whether a word is the subject or object of a verb.
In addition, the Al-Sayyid signers have developed the preference for a specific order of words in a sentence, that of subject-object-verb. The Nicaraguan children, in contrast, have developed the signed equivalents of case endings for words. Since these indicate whether a word is subject or object, word order is not so important and keeps changing with each cohort of children.
The apparently spontaneous emergence of word order and case endings in the two sign languages strongly suggests that the basic elements of syntax are innate and generated by genetically specified components of the human brain. The Al-Sayyid sign language has been developed through only three generations but some signs have already become symbolic. The sign for man is a twirl of the finger to indicate a curled mustache, even though the men of the village no longer wear them. Change is also brisk in Nicaragua. At first the children represented the number twenty by flicking the fingers of both hands in the air twice, says Ann Senghas, a linguist who has been studying their sign language for 15 years. But the sign was too cumbersome and has now been replaced with a form, signable with one hand, that looks nothing like a 20 but can be signed fast.49 Sign languages emphasize an often overlooked aspect of language, that gesture is an integral accompaniment of the spoken word. The human proto-language doubtless included gestures, and could even have started with gestures alone. Michael Corballis, a psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, argues that language "developed first as a primarily gestural system, involving movements of the body, and more especially the hands, arms and face."50 Speech would have evolved only later, he believes, because considerable evolutionary change had to occur to develop the fine muscles of the tongue and other parts of the vocal apparatus. Corballis's idea has several attractive features. It would explain why word and gesture are so well integrated, and why people even gesticulate when talking on the telephone despite the fact that their listeners cannot appreciate the performance. But critics of the idea note that gesture-based languages would be useless in the dark and that they require those conducting a conversation to be looking at each other all the time. Spoken language suffers from neither constraint.
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