Public Release: 

Experts explore 'languages without ancestors' during the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting

American Association for the Advancement of Science


AUDIO: This podcast features Marie Coppola, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, discussing her work view more

Credit: AAAS

People who are deaf create their own languages in a variety of circumstances, according to experts who will be discussing this phenomenon during the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting, taking place 12-16 February 2009 in Chicago, Illinois.

A single child with deafness, living in a family that uses spoken language, can invent simple gestures called "homesigns." There may be thousands of homesigners in a given society. But more conventional sign languages only arise when larger numbers of people come together, whether in schools or communities, and pass on signs from generation to generation. Speakers at the AAAS Meeting will discuss the results from ongoing studies of sign languages -- how they emerge, evolve and sometimes, like spoken languages, disappear.

Marie Coppola, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Illinois, will discuss her work with four Nicaraguan homesigners and how such individual gesture systems likely provided the raw materials for the language that emerged in the school for the deaf. Coppola will present her latest findings during a symposium on "Languages Without Ancestors," set for Sunday, 15 February 2009, 1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. CST (Hyatt Regency Chicago, Crystal Ballroom A). A press briefing related to the symposium is set for 11:00 a.m. CST on the same day.

Coppola also is featured on a related AAAS podcast, being made available via EurekAlert!. "Deaf children develop gestures to communicate when they are in situation where they are not exposed to a conventional sign language," she reports. "As they get older, these gesture systems, which are often known as homesigns, become more complex."

The patterns of linguistic structure found in gesture systems of homesigners and in successive generations of signers give clues on how language evolves, AAAS speakers say, but researchers are still grappling with questions such as how many people it takes to create a language and when the earliest sign systems attained a complexity greater than homesigns.

AAAS speaker Mark Aronoff, professor of linguistics at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y., and Wendy Sandler, director of the Sign Language Research Laboratory at the University of Haifa, Israel, will trace the development of a sign language that arose in a family with four deaf children in an insular Bedouin village in Israel. The language, now in its third generation, is used by 150 deaf and many hearing people.

Another speaker, Ann Senghas, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, New York, N.Y., will describe her work on a Nicaraguan sign language that emerged in the 1970s among formerly isolated students who came together at a school for the deaf in the city of Managua.


Media Note

Additional information on AAAS Annual Meeting news can be provided in advance to reporters who ensure adherence to the embargo policy. Reporters, please contact Earl Lane or Molly McElroy, (202) 326-6440, or; or Ginger Pinholster, (202) 326-6421,, before 12 February. After 12 February, call (312) 239-4811 to reach the AAAS Annual Meeting Newsroom on-site in the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Acapulco Room, West Tower. Embargoed news will be available to reporters via the AAAS virtual newsroom online at EurekAlert!,, beginning Monday, 9 February. To register as press, credentialed journalists can log onto

About AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

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