it takes a village

November 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

The village of Bengkala, Bali, Indonesia is also known as Desa Kolok ‘deaf village’. Here like the Al- Sayyid community of Bedouins, a rel;atively high degree of deafness in a small population has seen the emergence of a signed language. The legend of how deafness came to be a feature of this village is reported by Nick Palfreyman in his travelblog.

Deafness has a place in the cosmos of Desa Kolok, and there is a well-established myth about how deaf people came to be part of the village. When we got back to the village, I asked Ketut for more information about this.

Many years ago there was a couple in the village who wanted to have children, but had no success. After a while, they sought help from the gods. A family member went to the cemetery near the Pura Dalem at midnight, to get some special offerings to take to the family temple. At the ceremony this person encountered a deaf ghost. When the couple had a baby, the baby was deaf.

There is another story that the people of Desa Kolok originally came from the nearby village of Sinabun. In Sinabun, there is a temple conaining a shrine to Bhatara Kolok, a deaf god. In Bali, it is believed that the gods descend to their temples on the day of their temple festivals (odalan). At certain times, the village communities engage with the gods through a balian, a spirit medium. Ketut spoke of an occasion some time ago on the festival of Bhatara Kolok, when a balian – who could not sign – went into a trance and started to sign the responses of the god. This was interpreted for the worshipers by a temple priest from Desa Kolok, […] in the existence of the deaf god.

 Village sign languages are phenomena that have caught academic attention only recently. With typological interest in these languages and what they might say about the possibilities of human language, villages where signs have developed are now sites of research.

Ulrike Zeshan’s paper suggests that there are some critical issues to consider in researching village sign systems. How does the presence of a researcher and their potential followers impact on the economic ecology of the small population? Should they be subject to further intrusion by the detailed publishing of names and locations, for example. Moverover, she frames her paper from an endangerment persepctive, and points out that these languages are extremely fragile as nation building and ideologies of nation and language combine with deaf education initiatives, local ways of signing derived from sustained but secluded interactions between the Deaf and across the community are replaced by national sign languages. The emergence of Nicaragua Sign language, mentioned in the post linked above might too in their own ways be language killers.

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