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Nat Lang Linguist Theory. 2011 May;29(2):503-543.

The gradual emergence of phonological form in a new language.

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Department of English Language and Literature, University of Haifa, 31905 Haifa, Israel


The division of linguistic structure into a meaningless (phonological) level and a meaningful level of morphemes and words is considered a basic design feature of human language. Although established sign languages, like spoken languages, have been shown to be characterized by this bifurcation, no information has been available about the way in which such structure arises. We report here on a newly emerging sign language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, which functions as a full language but in which a phonological level of structure has not yet emerged. Early indications of formal regularities provide clues to the way in which phonological structure may develop over time.

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