Pidgins Creoles and Sign Languages

One of the Chomskyans' problems with evolution of language, that language is too complex to have halfway steps, has been addressed by Derek Bickerton. Bickerton became interested in the subject through his study of a fascinating language phenomenon, the development of creoles from pidgins. Pidgins are languages of limited vocabulary and minimal grammar, usually invented by two populations who have no language in common. The children of pidgin-speakers do something very interesting: they spontaneously develop the pidgin into a fully fledged language with proper grammatical rules. These developed pidgin languages are called creoles. It seemed to Bickerton, as he studied Hawaiian creoles, that their development offered an insight into the evolution of human language. The first language was pidgin-like, he suggested, consisting mostly of vocabulary, and syntax was grafted on later. Several possible remnants of this proto-language still survive. If children are not exposed to language in early childhood, when their Universal Grammar machine is switched on and primed to learn, they may never learn any language properly. This happens very rarely, in the case of feral children allegedly brought up by animals, or when pathological parents imprison their children in the house and refuse to speak to them. Genie, a 13-year-old California girl, was found in 1970 wandering the streets with her mother. The two had escaped from a house where Genie had been penned in a bedroom from the age of 18 months and denied conversation. After her rescue, intense efforts were made to teach her to talk, but she never acquired fully grammatical language. Her utterances were stuck at the level of sentences like "Want milk," or "Applesauce buy store."45 Even this primitive form of language could have been extremely useful to an early human society. Other possible echoes of the inferred proto-language can be heard in syntax-free utterances such as "Ouch!" or the more interesting "Shh!," which requires a listener.46

Recently linguists have developed a new window into the innate basis of syntax through a remarkable discovery—the detection of two new languages in the act of coming to birth. Both are sign languages, developed spontaneously by deaf communities whose members were not taught the standard sign languages of their country. One is Nicaraguan Sign Language, invented by children in a Nicaraguan school for the deaf. The other, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, was developed by members of a large Bedouin clan who live in a village in the Negev desert of Israel. The Nicaraguan case began when children were brought to a school for the deaf founded in 1977 by Hope Somosa, the wife

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