17 Apr

World Cultures: Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL)














By Thomas Jang

There are over 300 deaf sign languages in the world today, with new ones forming through creolization and in villages with high levels of congenital deafness. These are known as village sign languages. Some notable examples include Alipur, Chatino, Jumla, and Mayan Sign Language. 

The village of al-Sayyid is a Bedouin community where deafness has been shared hereditarily. Located in the Negeb desert, or al-Negeb, in the Levant region of the Middle East, residents use a village sign language known as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL). In Arabic, it is called لغة الإشارة لعشيرة السيد (Lughat il-Ishārah il-Ashīrat al-Sayyid). In fact, the Negeb desert contains the oldest discovered surface, which is at least 1.8 million years old. 

The rate of deafness is 50 times the global average among the villagers, with 150 out of 4,000 being deaf. ABSL is a new language, having formed 200 years ago from a sheikh of the goat-herding nomadic al-Sayyid clan, whose intermarriages caused children to inherit the recessive deafness gene within four generations. 

ABSL has a wide sign vocabulary used to describe anything from dreams to ambitions to upcoming events in the village. This sign language is increasingly complex as it combines simple words. For example, summer can be described by combining the words sweat and sun; likewise, mosque can be described by combining pray and house. Referring to specific places can be done by pointing to a sign that resembles that location and referencing the direction it is in from the communicator’s current location. 

ABSL’s relatively recent development as a sign language has also illustrated new traits never seen before. Whereas other sign languages utilize classifiers by shaping one’s hand to describe the action, ABSL applies them to nouns. When signing egg, ABSL users sign chicken while pantomiming their hands in the shape of an oval. 

Village sign languages inherently emerged from isolated areas and islands. The influence of geographical isolation on the formation of these sign languages has also led to them becoming increasingly endangered. Among the 138 living sign languages currently documented within the 19th edition of Ethnologue, all of the village sign languages are endangered, but their statuses vary. The endangerment of these village sign languages has been due to standardized national sign languages taught by deaf-education institutions. 

For the community of al-Sayyid, the fading of ABSL threatens their identity and culture. Moreover, people younger than 30 increasingly use Israeli Sign Language (ISL) through school, TV, and other social networks from beyond the community. Likewise, people work outside al-Sayyid and gradually marry outside their community. Fortunately, ABSL still persists in the community, strengthened by multi-generational families.