From pantomime to sign: How sign language evolves

How does sign language develop? A new study shows that it takes less than five generations for people to go from simple, unconventional pantomimes—essentially telling a story with your hands—to stable signs. Researchers asked a group of volunteers to invent their own signs for a set of 24 words in four separate categories: people, locations, objects, and actions. Examples included “photographer,” “darkroom,” and “camera.” After an initial group made up the signs—pretending to shoot a picture with an old-fashioned camera for “photographer,” for example—they taught the signs to a new generation of learners. That generation then played a game where they tried to guess what sign another player in their group was making. When they got the answer right, they taught that sign to a new generation of volunteers. After a few generations, the volunteers stopped acting out the words with inconsistent gestures and started making them in ways that were more systematic and efficient. What’s more, they added markers for the four categories—pointing to themselves if the category were “person” or making the outline of a house if the category were “location,” for example—and they stopped repeating gestures, the researchers reported last month at the Evolution of Language conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. So in the video above, the first version of “photographer” is unpredictable and long, compared with the final version, which uses the person marker and takes just half the time. The researchers say their finding supports the work of researchers in the field, who have found similar patterns of development in newly emerging sign languages. The results also suggest that learning and social interaction are crucial to this development.