In Talking Hands, her first book, New York Times obituarist Margalit Fox joins a group of linguists travelling to Al-Sayyid, a Bedouin village in the middle of the Israeli desert, to research the origins of language in the human brain. About 70 years ago, as a result of isolation and intermarriage, deaf children began to be born in Al-Sayyid at an astoundingly high rate. The first of these children used a private system of “homesigns” to communicate within their families; when they interacted with each other, the homesigns became a pidgin, a kind of simplified contact language that arises when two or more cultures meet. Most interesting, the next generation of deaf children transformed the pidgin into a creole, a fully complex language with its own internal structure. By now, Al-Sayyid signers have developed a system robust and abstract enough to describe anything from Israeli social security to Bedouin folktales. The researchers that Fox profiles are trying to figure out how these kids use their “language instinct” to intuitively transform a bunch of words into a grammar.
Talking Hands is blurbed by Oliver Sacks, who established the neurological case study as literature, a new kind of detective story complete with its own dramatic arc: Clue-hunting in the brain leads to a moment of diagnostic revelation. Fox tries to do something similar, but she proves much more adept at establishing context than at chronicling the process of discovery itself. Some of the back- ground on language she provides is fascinating—who knew that, until the 1950s, Martha’s Vineyard was an enclave for the deaf, and that most of its residents were bilingual in English and MVSL, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. (Both deaf and hearing male islanders used sign to tell dirty jokes behind women’s backs.) Other bits, like a lengthy history of Western deaf studies and Gallaudet University, are not entirely relevant. Meanwhile, we want to hear more about the linguists, the Bedouins, and their partnership in solving one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time—what is this stuff we speak, and where did it come from?