Recently showcased on the cover of Science, Associate Professor Natasha Abner led a team of linguists and mathematicians in a study that applies computational phylogenetic methods to study the historical development and evolutionary interrelations of sign languages worldwide. Shedding light on the histories of sign languages, the research uses a novel model to track changes in word-form properties. It establishes a deep connection between sign languages and human experiences, geopolitical history, and deaf community dynamics.

Abner was also featured in Popular Science following the release of the study in Science, in an article titled “Computer modeling is tracing the hidden evolution of sign languages”.

Title: Computational phylogenetics reveal histories of sign languages

Authors: Natasha Abner, Grégoire Clarté, Carlo Geraci, Robin J. Ryder, Justine Mertz, Anah Salgat, Shi Yu

DOI: 10.1126/science.add7766

Abstract: Sign languages are naturally occurring languages. As such, their emergence and spread reflect the histories of their communities. However, limitations in historical recordkeeping and linguistic documentation have hindered the diachronic analysis of sign languages. In this work, we used computational phylogenetic methods to study family structure among 19 sign languages from deaf communities worldwide. We used phonologically coded lexical data from contemporary languages to infer relatedness and suggest that these methods can help study regular form changes in sign languages. The inferred trees are consistent in key respects with known historical information but challenge certain assumed groupings and surpass analyses made available by traditional methods. Moreover, the phylogenetic inferences are not reducible to geographic distribution but do affirm the importance of geopolitical forces in the histories of human languages.