Central Taurus Sign Language

With Ray JackendoffRabia ErginAriel M. Cohen-GoldbergCarol PaddenDeniz IlkbasaranIrit MeirWendy Sandler, and Mark Aronoff

In the Tufts Linguistics Seminar last year, we were discussing a chapter on sign language. Rabia Ergin, a fellow graduate student, mentioned that several of her family members are deaf and live in a remote village in the Central Taurus Mountain region in Turkey. It turned out that the deaf people in the village have created a language (Central Taurus Sign Language or CTSL) over the past few generations that is distinct from Turkish Sign Language (TID). Approximately 15 deaf people from the second and third generations currently live in Rabia’s family’s village, and 13 deaf people live in a nearby village (3-4% and 0.5-0.6% of the population, respectively). An additional number of hearing villagers are also fluent in CTSL. Due to cultural, geographical and financial circumstances, only five deaf villagers received any formal education and learned Turkish Sign Language (TID).

Like all village sign languages, CTSL provides a window into the human capacity for language and can help answer the question: What is it that humans are capable of creating from scratch in absence of a linguistic tradition? As one of a growing number of village sign languages that have been identified, CTSL represents an opportunity to draw comparisons among village sign languages and to begin to make modest generalizations about language emergence. Preliminary analyses reveal some similarities between CTSL and other village sign languages. Like Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL),  another village sign language, signers point to absolute locations (Aronoff et al., 2008), and make frequent use of compounds (Meir et al., 2010) and suprasegmentals like eyebrows which accompany the manual signs (Sandler et al., 2011). Surprisingly, CTSL signers sign with their feet in addition to their hands (e.g., for naming colors).

We are currently focusing on the following two projects in particular:

Semantic Disambiguation Strategies

In this project, we investigate strategies used in CTSL to disambiguate arguments in a given proposition when there are two animate semantic characters (e.g., The man threw the ball to the girl). Signers described a set of short video clips (Sandler et al., 2005) to an interlocutor, who then selected the matching picture from an array of three pictures. Signers often first attempted to use word order without morphological marking (e.g., MAN GIRL BALL THROW), but this was rarely understood by the interlocutor. Like ABSL (Meir, 2010; Padden et al., 2010), Israeli Sign Language, (Meir, 2010) and Nicaraguan Sign Language (Senghas et al., 1997), CTSL signers sometimes disambiguated semantic roles using pragmatics and divided the proposition into two sentences (e.g., MAN THROW / GIRL CATCH.). They also used two additional syntactic strategies. Sometimes they would use spatial inflection by setting up a location to refer to each of the semantic characters, and then use verb agreement to mark agent and recipient/patient syntactically (e.g., MAN LOC1, GIRL LOC2, LOC1-THROW-LOC2), where the path of movement matches the direction of transfer between the agent and recipient. More frequently, they would identify themselves as one of the characters in the discourse, and again use verb agreement to mark themselves as the agent or the recipient/patient of the event (e.g., ME MAN, LOC1 GIRL, ME-THROW-LOC1). These findings suggest that CTSL signers use both syntactic and semantic strategies for encoding argument structure when two semantic characters are animate.

Phonological Investigation

We are coding a number of signs for phonological properties in order to understand how consistently signs are produced within signers, across signers, and across generations. This investigation has just begun, so keep an eye out for more information.