Did languages evolve from a common ancestor– an outgrowth of some ancient language developed by cave people– or do they arise spontaneously, an organic outgrowth of innate human abilities coupled with the desire to communicate? PBS’s Evolution television series included an episode called “The Mind’s Big Bang.” Having watched parts of it several years ago, I was struck by an excerpt: it is the story behind Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN), which appears to have been created spontaneously by a group of children at a Nicaraguan school for the deaf. The video excerpt can be found online.
Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices offers several insights about Sign and its history. One of the book’s anecdotes concerns the history of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). Martha’s Vineyard has had a sizable population of people with hereditary deafness for a couple centuries now, and the version of Sign used there is quite different from the structure of British Sign Language (BSL); instead, its linguistic connections are closer to French Sign Language (LSF). Moreover, MVSL played a critical role in the development of American Sign Language (ASL).
Whatever the origins of a specific language, it would be interesting to understand whether the seed for language creation exists within human beings.