Click here to fill out our survey for the 2024/25 essay competition!

Homesign: How an Iranian Family Created a Sign Language!

Around sixty years ago in a small village called Sadat Tawaher in southwestern Iran, a man in his early twenties completely lost his hearing. He was now the only deaf person in Sadat Tawaher where neither no one knew sign language nor did they have access to deaf education. The deaf person had not gone to school and thus had no reading or writing literacy, either. All of these factors left the people of Sadat Tawaher who wanted to communicate with him with only one option: gestures. After sixty years, Sadat Tawaher now has a young sign language that I will be referring to as ST Homesign. In sign language research, homesign is the term used to describe gesture-based sign language systems that emerge naturally in families with a deaf individual but with no access to deaf education or sign language (Hill, Lillo-Martin, & Wood, 2018). Considering that the surrounding spoken language, in this case Mesopotamian Arabic (MA), normally influences a sign language in its vicinity (e.g., Fischer, 2014; Meir, Sandler, Padden, & Aronoff, 2010; Nyst, 2007), an interesting question to ask is whether ST Homesign is merely speech signed following the grammar of Arabic or whether it has developed its own grammar independently of Arabic. Based on evidence from different grammatical areas including word order, negation, topicalization, yes/no and wh-questions, conditional clauses, and relative clauses, I argue that, despite its similarities to Arabic, ST Homesign has drifted away from Arabic to create its own syntactic structure over time. Furthermore, surprisingly, ST Homesign’s syntax exhibits striking similarities to other fully developed sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL), probably indicating that sign languages have shared features regardless of linguistic, geographical and cultural boundaries.