Algerian Jewish Sign Language: its emergence and survival

Lanesman, Sara (2013) Algerian Jewish Sign Language: its emergence and survival. Masters thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This thesis is concerned with Algerian Jewish Sign Language (AJSL) and the Algerian Jewish Sign Language community. AJSL developed naturally in the Jewish quarter of Ghardaia, a town in the sub-Saharan part of Algeria. A high percentage of deaf people lived in this quarter, and because of that a sign language emerged, and was used by both deaf and hearing members of the community. Many members of the AJSL community migrated to Israel in the middle of the twentieth century, where they have continued to use AJSL with friends and family members. As a result, AJSL has persisted alongside the dominant sign language of Israel, which is Israeli Sign Language (ISL).

This thesis uses data collected from nine members of the AJSL community to explore the sociolinguistic conditions of the AJSL community prior to, and following, the migration of AJSL community members to Israel. It considers how AJSL was used in Ghardaia, and how it has persisted in Israel alongside ISL, which is more prevalent and socially more powerful. The research participants shared narratives on life in Ghardaia and life in Israel, and were also asked about their attitudes towards AJSL and ISL. Specific recurring themes have been identified in their narratives, and these are used to build up a picture of the AJSL community in Ghardaia and Israel.

Analysis of these data shows that, once in Israel, AJSL and Algerian culture were perceived negatively by the mainstream Deaf community in Israel, and so AJSL was relegated to the status of a minority language, used only with friends and family members. Deaf Algerian immigrants began to learn ISL, and used this more in public, but hearing Algerian immigrants had no motivation to learn ISL, and remained sign-monolingual in AJSL.

For this study, just under 300 lexical items have been elicited from AJSL users in order to compare the lexica of AJSL and ISL. Lexical comparison suggests that AJSL has retained its own distinct lexical items over the past 60 years, and in this respect AJSL has been remarkably persistent. In light of the narratives shared by research participants, it is concluded here that the persistence of AJSL in Israel can be attributed to two main factors: its importance as a means of communication between deaf and hearing family members, and its rejection by the dominant community, the ISL users.

In spite of the remarkable persistence of AJSL, however, it is clear that AJSL is an endangered language, since intergenerational transmission of the language has all but ceased. This thesis presents evidence to suggest that AJSL is a moribund language, on the grounds not only of intergenerational transmission, but also the relocation and dispersal of the AJSL community, the size of the AJSL community, contact with ISL, and the low status of AJSL in the period immediately following migration to Israel.

The study of AJSL is interesting for many reasons. First, AJSL has characteristics both similar to and different from other village sign languages, and may shed light on the development and structure of such languages. Second, AJSL is unique as a sign language that has persisted in Israel, alongside a widely used sign language, where the sign languages of other immigrant communities have long since disappeared. The case is made in this thesis for the importance of documenting AJSL; language documentation is crucial, given that AJSL is now used only by older generations, and no longer acquired by younger generations.

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