Republished Article from MOSAIC

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Studying an emerging sign language won’t kill it – so what are linguists scared of?

Emerging sign languages could reveal how all language evolved – but keeping these fragile languages isolated for research may mean the people who rely on them lose out.

Connie de Vos was sitting on her hands. It was 2006, her first stay in the Balinese village of Bengkala, and visitors had come every night to her house, sitting on the floor of the front patio, eating fruit- or durian-flavoured candies and drinking tea. About eight to ten people were there now, hands flitting in the shadows, chatting away in Kata Kolok, the local sign language: Where is the next ceremony? When is the next funeral? Who just died?

Kata Kolok was created in Bengkala about 120 years ago and has some special features, such as sticking out your tongue to add ‘no’ or ‘not’ to a verb. And unlike American Sign Language (ASL), in which people move their mouths silently as they sign, you also smack your lips gently, which creates a faint popping sound, to indicate that an action has finished…

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