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Deaf people, modernity, and a contentious effort to unify Arab sign languages


This dissertation examines a project to unify sign languages across twenty-two Arab countries. Proponents of the project, mainly pan-Arab governmental bodies with the support of members of the staff at the Al Jazeera satellite network, have framed the project as a human rights effort to advance the welfare of deaf Arab people. They have urged its institutionalization in schools for deaf children and have promoted it as the official language of deaf Arab people. The project is controversial and has a number of shortcomings. First, from a lexicostatistical analysis of five natural sign languages found in the region: Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, and Palestine, the author finds that they are unlikely to be descendants of a common ancestor. As such, attempting to unify them would be unsound by scholarly linguistics standards. Second, there are cultural, political, and social objections to the project that have been raised by deaf Arab people who are resistant to the unification effort. They say they cannot understand the unified sign language nor can they find a purpose or utility in the language, which they believe threatens to diminish and eventually obliterate their natural sign languages. This dissertation reviews arguments held by those supporting and opposing the project. Both sides claim a vision of modernity in which progress is perceived as a continuation of a past that is consistent with their present practices and beliefs. For proponents supporting the unification project, progress is tied to pan-Arab nationalism and the unifying Arabic language. Those opposing the project define progress as gaining more autonomy through official recognition of their natural sign languages and by transforming disparaging concepts of deafness. The unified sign language project may fail in achieving its goal of wide acceptance by deaf Arab people throughout the Arab region. Its potential demise can be attributed to its architects' lack of understanding of the deep complexity of human languages, including sign languages, as well as a lack of appreciation for informal, local practices and knowledge that are required for the project's success

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