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Signing in a ‘deaf family’ – documentation of the Mardin Sign Language, Turkey


Language Mardin Sign Language
Depositor Ulrike Zeshan
Location Turkey
Collection ID 0134
Grant ID MDP0200
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Mardin Sign Language (MarSL) is a recently-documented, small-scale sign language used by an extended family in Turkey. MarSL originated in Mardin, a town in south-eastern Turkey close to the Syrian border. Its development, dispersion and user community approximates the situation of other rural community sign languages. Beginning around the 1930s, MarSL developed as a result of genetic deafness in this family, which includes at least four successive generations of deaf individuals (Dikyuva & Dilsiz 2009, Dikyuva & Zeshan, in press). The family’s name, Dilsiz, means ‘deaf’ (literally ‘tongue/language-less’) in Turkish. The name Mardin Sign Language was coined by researchers; the signers themselves refer to their language as dilsizce (Turkish for ‘deaf language’) or eski işaretler (Turkish for ‘old signs’).


Group represented

Mardin deaf communities in Mardin, Istanbul and Izmir.


Language information

Mardin Sign Language (MarSL) is a highly endangered and completely undocumented sign language. It exists in a unique setting, a group of ca. 40 members of an extended family with a high incidence of hereditary deafness over five generations. The sign language is used by both deaf and hearing family members. The signers themselves refer to their language as dilsizce (Turkish for ‘deaf language’), or eski işaretler (Turkish for ‘old signs’). The language originated in the town of Mardin in south-eastern Turkey, but users of the language now live in Istanbul and Izmir.


Special characteristics

The situation of this language is unique in many ways, most notably with respect to the shared use of the sign language by both deaf and hearing people, which is very unlike the situation of urban deaf communities. This is the first documented case of a sign language that has arisen within an individual family, but is not classified as “home sign”. The language contact situation is also of particular interest because hearing bilingual sign language users play an important role in the Mardin Sign Language user community. Most of the signers are now bilingual in Mardin Sign Language and Turkish Sign Language, and the younger deaf people only have partial passive competence, using Turkish Sign Language exclusively. Family members have moved away from Mardin and now live in Istanbul and Izmir, where about 40 deaf and hearing people still use MardinSL.


Collection contents

The collection contains 30 hours of video recordings. The content specifically focuses on documenting the following:

– Narratives by the oldest sign language users about the history of deafness in this extended family, and other historical evidence such as compiling family trees together with the consultants, exploring the history of the family name “Dilsiz”, etc.

– Interviews with consultants about the particular way in which deaf and hearing individuals in this small community interact with each other, and what their views are about issues of deafness, disability, family, and community. We expect these views to be substantially different from prevailing attitudes towards deafness and disability in Turkey, and this is an important cultural consideration.

– Narratives by both older and younger signers about the way in which the sign language was used in its original location in Mardin and the way in which it is used now, in order to understand the language dynamics in a community that is now in a state of diaspora.


Collection history

Researcher Hasan Dikyuva proposed the first aspects of MardinSL to be studied for this project in the summer of 2009. Exploratory field visits to the target community, which has established contact as well as giving a first idea of the particular socio-cultural and typological interest of MardinSL, for instance, with respect to the number system and the use of non-manual features. Due to the complexity of the linguistic situation and the central role of sign language and deaf individuals, the involvement of a deaf sign language user from Turkey as researcher is an essential feature of this project, for reasons of both academic quality and research ethics.


Other information

The project provided training for the language consultants and carried out awareness raising activities, particularly within the urban deaf community and Turkey. An educational CD/DVD was produced about their language, family history, and socio-cultural setting for the general public to raise awareness about their unique linguistic heritage.


Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Ulrike Zeshan as the principal investigator and Hasan Dikyuva as researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by name. Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors is available in the metadata.

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Zeshan, Ulrike. 2015. Signing in a ‘deaf family’ – documentation of the Mardin Sign Language, Turkey. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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