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Nicaraguan Sign Language (wikipedia.org)
84 points by Tomte on April 3, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 14 comments

There’s a great radiolab episode about this. They found the older generations of signers didn’t just sign more primitively, but they couldn’t comprehend more complex ideas bc they weren’t build into the language yet.


That is one of the best Radiolab episodes ever. It's immensely interesting, highly recommended!

Evidence for Sapir-Worf hypothesis? Seems like it’s growing more and more.

It is worth at least reading through the Wikipedia entries on Linguistic Relativity and Linguistic Determinism if this topic interests you. There is a longstanding debate among linguists on this topic, but there are certain areas of the debate which are generally considered to have been settled by empirical evidence.


For people interested in this sort of thing, I'd recommend Seeing Voices[1] by Oliver Sacks, in which he writes about spontaneous development of language by people who grew up without it.

[1] - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/66723.Seeing_Voices

Here's a demonstration showing some basic words. The syntax of it is pretty easy to grasp. I only know a little Spanish, but I was able to understand a number of the words I didn't know by looking at the gestures.


It's so incredible to see this today as only yesterday I have played this with some friends: https://thornygames.com/pages/sign It is board game based on a stripped down rendition of the story of NSL, I really recommend it as it is simple but it makes for a game experience which is pleasantly unusual.

Weren't most languages spontaneously developed?

No. Most languages evolved from earlier languages through gradual linguistic drift. Some languages emerged by putting fluent speakers of two or more existing languages into a shared environment and having them form a common language.

Nicaraguan Sign Language is the closest example we have of putting a bunch of humans who don't know any language into a shared environment, and watching them develop a new language, with minimal influence of existing languages.

Of course, this was not actually a linguistically isolated community. But, for obvious ethical reasons, it is probably about as close to one as we will get.

That makes sense. They likely all have ancestors that were spontaneously formed, but are not so themselves. It seems like dialects might be spontaneously formed, and I wonder how we draw the line between languages and dialects.

The majority opinion I believe is that there is no common ancestor to all of today's languages, implying there have been several languages without parents. Of course, that's a thin majority, and those that believe it aren't that attached because there's no real way to know for sure. It would be neat if languages all had a common ancestor though, because that would leave open the possibility that language developed evolutionarily alongside our ability to understand it. Then maybe no language ever would have been spontaneous.

>I wonder how we draw the line between languages and dialects

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy

Most modern sign languages come genetically from British sign language or French Sign Language.


In the remote past, yes. It is more interesting that this happened recently.

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