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The Emergence of Signs in Interaction: Shared Homesign Systems in Nebaj, Guatemala

Laura Horton, PhD Candidate, Comparative Human Development and Linguistics

As I make my way down the precipitously steep hill from the parque central towards the Xolacul neighborhood, I am grateful that the municipial government of Nebaj has seen fit to extend the concrete pavement this far. I jump out of the street, over the deep gutter, to avoid the tuk-tuks that race around a large truck unloading cases of Guatemala’s signature beer, “El Gallo,” at a local cantina. I hurry on, past where the pavement ends, to a deeply rutted gravel and dirt street up the hill and further away from the center of town.

I pass tiendas and tortilleras, opening up for business, as kids make their way to school in matching uniforms. I arrive at La Escuela Oficial para Educacion Especiál de Nebaj (EOEE), the local school for special education, around 8:30. The early-arriving students are sweeping up the courtyard and classrooms, sprinkling water on the covered porch to keep the dust down, and picking up trash from the road in front of the school. Older students lean on the front gate, catching up on yesterday’s news—their hands waving and pointing and gesturing fluidly, occasionally punctuated by headshakes, pushing, shoving and chasing. These students are deaf, and while some have deaf relatives at home, others only interact with other deaf people when they are at school, with other deaf peers.

The school enrolls students from the age of three with a wide range of disabilities including physical handicaps, learning disabilities and Downs syndrome. There are also 5–8 deaf students who attend, depending on the year. None of the deaf students at the school has enough residual hearing to learn Ixhil, the Mayan language spoken in the community, or Spanish, the language children learn when they begin attending school. None of the teachers at the school knows LENSEGUA, the official sign language of Guatemala, used primarily in Guatemala City, nine hours south of Nebaj.

The deaf students thus invent their own gestural systems to communicate—with their hearing family members, with their teachers and with each other. These gestural systems, called homesign systems (1), have been studied in many countries around the world where, like Nebaj, there are deaf children and adults who cannot hear the spoken language in their environment, and who are not part of a community that uses a national sign language (2). These studies have established that homesign systems created by individual deaf children and adults are often internally consistent and share many properties with established languages (3). When individual deaf homesigners are brought together in a community or institutional setting, like a school, they can converge on a shared sign language within a few age-cohort “generations.” The daily contact between homesigners, combined with transmission of the manual communication system to a new age-cohort generation of deaf children who enter into the community, gives rise to a new sign language, significantly insulated from contact with the surrounding spoken language(s) (4).

After school finishes for the day, I go to Ana and Emilio’s house to try a new elicitation task with them. I arrive with my video cameras, tripod and backpack full of toys and books. I chat briefly with their mom, who is headed out to the market, and then set up the cameras opposite to three plastic chairs dragged out onto the covered porch from inside the house. Ana sits at a table across from Emilio with a book of photos of familiar objects and places, including animals, vehicles, tools and food. Emilio sits next to his younger brother, Marco, who is hearing. They are facing Ana and Emilio holds a paper with a grid of 16 pictures. Ana describes each photo to Emilio and he then tries to select the correct picture from his array of photos.

This game helps me document and understand Ana and Emilio’s homesign systems in two ways. First, I am recording the signs that Ana uses to describe everyday things in her world. I will take this data back to Chicago and code it for features like handshape and movement to understand how his signs are similar or different from other homesigners in Nebaj, as well as other established and emergent sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL) or Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). Second, this “matcher” task allows me to observe Ana and Emilio interacting with each other, to observe how they resolve miscommunications and negotiate their homesign systems when there is confusion.

Ana turns to a page with a photo of a horse. She uses a gesture that many hearing people employ when talking about animals across Latin America, a flat hand extended from her body, with the palm facing inwards. She then gestures with her hands at her shoulders, a common description of a person or animal carrying a heavy load. Emilio looks up from the array, having missed this sequence, and Ana repeats only the carry gesture. Emilio points out a photo of a pile of firewood, often carried in the way that Ana demonstrated. She looks down, indicating that he has not selected the correct photo based on her description so he searches the array again. His little brother Marco taps him on the shoulder and gestures to indicate large ears, similar to a horse, then waves his hand in front of his mouth, a common gestural emblem to mean “eating” used by both hearing people and the deaf homesigners in Nebaj. Emilio looks back at the array of photos and points out a photo of a dog. Ana, frustrated, turns her book around to show Emilio the photo of the horse. He finds the matching picture in his array and points to it repeatedly.

This missed communicative exchange is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, not least because Ana had trouble picking out the same photo of a horse from the same array, moments earlier when Emilio was the one describing the photos to her. It may seem surprising that these siblings, the only two deaf children in a family of eight, do not share the same sign for an animal that they see every day in the roads and fields around their home. It is possible that, had Emilio seen Ana make the animal gesture before the carry gesture, he could have selected the correct photo from his array. It is also interesting that, when Emilio did not select the correct photo on the first try, Marco, his brother who is not deaf, recognizes the structure of the task and the fact that he must sign to Emilio to communicate a piece of missing information to him. Even when Marco supplies the information that Emilio missed when Ana described the horse the first time (that it was an animal and that it was eating) Emilio chooses a different animal from the array. Ana does not attempt to clarify for Emilio, instead showing him her photo of the horse after he has incorrectly chosen photos of firewood and a dog.

This brief interaction illustrates the fragility and contingent nature of communication for homesigners in Nebaj. They navigate their world trying to communicate with a variety of people who do not share their modality of communicating (visual-manual homesign versus oral-aural spoken language), much less their particular communicative system. Sometimes, it seems that even a sibling who is also deaf, and also a homesigner, does not automatically entail comprehension between homesigners. The question I seek to answer with my data is how these kinds of interaction, between siblings who are both homesigners, between siblings who are deaf and hearing, between homesigning children and their homesigning parents, and between homesigning peers at school, affect the structure and stability of emergent communication systems.

View of one of the main roads through Nebaj, Guatemala








View of one of the main roads through Nebaj, Guatemala

The front gate of the Escuela Oficial para Educación Especial (Official School for Special Education, Nebaj)










The front gate of the Escuela Oficial para Educación Especial (Official School for Special Education, Nebaj)

Students play a game in the courtyard of the Official School for Special Education, Nebaj, Guatemala







Students play a game in the courtyard of the Official School for Special Education, Nebaj, Guatemala


(1) Frishberg (1987); Goldin-Meadow (2003)

(2) Researchers distinguish “national” sign languages from local, village, and indigenous sign languages based on the number of users, the length of time the language has been in use, and the resources (use in schools, access to interpreting services) available to signers who use the language. In some communities, for example, there is a high prevalence of hereditary deafness and both hearing and deaf individuals are thus exposed to a shared sign language; these systems are often referred to as “village” sign languages.

(3) Goldin-Meadow et al (2009); Coppola & Newport (2005)

(4) A recent example is Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), a sign language that started just 50 years ago with the first state-supported schools for special education in Managua. NSL has been extensively documented: Kegl & Iwata (1985); Senghas, Senghas & Pyers (2004); Polich (2005)


Coppola, M. & Newport, E. (2005). Grammatical Subjects in home sign: Abstract linguistic structure in adult primary gesture systems without linguistic input. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(52), 19249-19253.

Frishberg, N. (1987). Home sign. In J. Van Cleve (ed.), Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness (Vol. 3) New York: McGraw Hill. 128–131.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.

Goldin-Meadow, S., Özyürek, A., Sancar, B., & Mylander, C. (2009). Making language around the globe: A cross-linguistic study of homesign in the United States, China, and Turkey. In J. Guo, E. Lieven, N. Budwig & S. Ervin-Tripp (eds.), Crosslinguistic approaches to the psychology of language: Research in the tradition of Dan Isaac Slobin. N.Y.: Taylor & Francis, 27-39.

Kegl, J., Senghas, A., Coppola, M. (1999) Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. In M. DeGraff (ed.), Language creation and language change: Creolization diachrony, and development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 179–237.

Kegl, J. & Iwata, G. (1989). Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense: A Pidgin Sheds Light on the “Creole?” ASL. In Carlson, R., S. DeLancey, S. Gildea, D. Payne, and A. Saxena, (eds.). Proceedings of the Fourth Meetings of the Pacific Linguistics Conference. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon, pp. 266–294.

Polich, L. (2005). The Emergence of the deaf community in Nicaragua: "With sign language you can learn so much." Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Senghas, R., Senghas, A., & Pyers, J. (2004). The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution. In S. T. Parker, J. Langer, & C. Milbrath (Eds.), Biology and Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to psychogenesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 287-306.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago. 


Fighting the Good Fight: Keeping the Literary Fire Alive After Academia

Alexander Slater Johnson, LACS MA'14







When I stepped onto the University of Chicago campus back in the fall of 2013, I was ready to greet it and its atmosphere as if it were an old friend.  The well-trimmed gardens, the tree-lined paths; all of the UC campus immediately reminded me of my years at the University of Oregon.  The similarities, however, ended there.  I had returned to Academia after a three-year absence; an indulgent sabbatical where I worked and traveled around Spain, teaching the English language while improving my own knowledge of Spanish.  I decided to accept the University of Chicago’s offer to do a one-year Master’s program through the Center for Latin American Studies, otherwise known as CLAS, to continue my research interests in Latin American history.  I had completed my undergraduate thesis under professor Carlos Aguirre, who helped me in my writing on the role declassification has had on the official histories of the tumultuous and violent decades of authoritarianism in the Southern Cone.

When you spend time outside of the walls of the academy, its realities begin to take on a rather different, even romanticized look.  The razor-sharp, competitive edges are smoothed-over into a warm, inviting bear hug where everyone dives into their intellectual passions and research in an environment of a collaborative love of knowledge.  Or maybe that was just the University of Oregon.  The truth is, the University of Chicago was a different beast altogether.  The initial nine months (which invariably extended into my first sweltering Chicago summer), saw incredible mental stress, a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree shift in my research interests, and a game I played with the undergraduates rest of the master’s students called “catch up.”

 I entered the CLAS Master’s program with a History degree and left one year later with an unbridled passion for Literature.  Indeed, it was Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The War of the End of the World and subsequently Brazilian history at the turn of the twentieth century that motivated me to apply in the first place.  I was hesitant to focus on literature, however, due to my undergraduate background and a lack of confidence in my ability to assimilate into the world of literary studies.  But all of that fades away on a campus, and here is where that cold intellectual bubble began to warm up a bit.  It was post-doctoral lecturer Rosario Granados-Salinas as well as historian Dain Borges who encouraged my interest in literature, and supported what would become my rather arabesque thesis project.









Studying the Humanities is a daunting proposition these days.  Unless you are sure about that PhD, about entering the tenure-track race, about conference circuits, and about the viability of your research interests, studying literature can raise not a few eyebrows —especially if you’re footing most of the bill for that Master’s degree.  Nevertheless, literature became my new field of study, and (as with any discipline) there are centuries of writers, theorists and academics you must have read or at least “know” in some ambiguous, head-nodding way.  This is when “catch up” began in earnest.  I took a variety of courses and checked out piles of books from the library.  And I had to learn Portuguese. It wasn’t my best idea.

Immediately the difficulty set in.  I felt inferior in almost every sense of the word, and while such a feeling is as isolating as it gets, the staff and professors associated with Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as a few generous souls in the English department, helped me settle in.  With their encouragement, I discovered new avenues of research and slowly gained confidence in working in the Humanities, a field constantly battling the forces of darkness, otherwise known as the social and hard sciences.

            My research eventually led me to a small field called Inter-American Studies, which studies connections across all disciplines between the North, Central and South America.  Vargas Llosa’s novel introduced me to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, whose monumental text Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) is a generic anomaly on the War of Canudos.  As chance would have it, I took a course called “Marx and Melville in the Global Nineteenth Century,” and to this day I am not sure if it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or my love of Moby-Dick, but before I knew it I was finding connections between these two works and the historical moments that drew Euclides da Cunha and Herman Melville to write their “Great Pan-American Novels.”  That was what I said, at least, to my adviser, whose response will stay in my mind forever: “Far out.”






A Melville and da Cunha enthusiast himself, my adviser’s encouragement and his willingness to talk about role Herm and Euclides for hours in his office were invaluable to my year at University of Chicago and to my life outside of academia.  The excitement I felt and the inhuman amount of stress I put upon myself in writing my thesis are things I will never forget.  From within higher education, the passionate research you do seems like the most important thing you could possibly be doing.  Advisors and professors take issue for every argument you make and challenge you to articulate, research and think like you never have before.  The minute you step beyond those walls, however, the rigors of your daily life can easily relegate what was once so important to the backburner of your mind. 










But it doesn’t have to be that way.  What might seem opaque in the moment becomes lucid in hindsight.  Although I still teach during the day, at night I put on my academic spandex and fight the criminal banality of daily life.  I have started a podcast called “The Casual Academic.”  At first, it was very challenging to put a show together from scratch and discuss literature for a wider audience.  But preparing each episode is a chance for me to do what rigorous research Google permits me, articulate my ideas both verbally and on paper, and feel more and more that my master’s was worth it.  There is an incredible amount of academic literature available on authors like Umberto Eco, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald, and those discussions are always fruitful.  When we do episodes on authors that are not household names (Venedikt Erofeev, Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector), I hear the voice of my adviser telling me to remember my training, and I get to work.  Will I someday go back and pursue my dreams of a PhD?  An open question, up for interpretation and discussion.  For now, there are many ways to follow my interests, and I have my year at the University of Chicago to thank for showing me how. 










The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago. 

Language and the Ancient History of a New World

Valeria López FadulProvost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

There was once in Mexico City a painter named Baltasar de Echave. It was a time (the early seventeenth century) when the city’s Basque community was thriving. Echave, a man of distinction, grew increasingly concerned with what he believed to be the demise of the Basque language. The New World and its promises of gold and never-ending wealth lured many young people into perpetual exile from their ancestral homelands in the Iberian Peninsula, causing them to abandon their ancient estates. When these men and women reached the Indies their descendants adopted Castilian for convenience and abandoned Basque. In the same way that the disappearance of the Taínos of Hispaniola brought about a formal end to their spoken tongues, Echave feared that Basque too would fade away.[i]

The languages of the Caribbean were declining, their only vestiges the islands’ place names. But the situation of Basque could still be reversed. This compelled Echave to publish a treatise entitled the Discursos de la antigüedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada in 1607. In it he celebrated his language’s nobility and expressive qualities.                 

Above all, however, Echave’s treatise stressed the antiquity of Basque. Like many other early modern thinkers, Echave believed that Basque had been the primordial and most widespread tongue of Spain and that it held a special place amongst the languages of mankind, including those spoken in the Americas. Furthermore, Echave trusted that the rapidly changing linguistic situation of the Indies could illuminate many of the forces that had acted upon Basque before histories were recorded. It could help show how this once general tongue was now spoken only by a few.

In other words, an understanding of the history and development of ancient indigenous societies like those of Mesoamerica or the Andes region together with the many demographic, political, economic, and environmental transformations brought about by one hundred years of Spanish rule could serve scholars like Echave “as examples and live portraits of what it was once like in the Old World.” Language and its transformations represented a way to stream back to the unrecorded past, to gain insight into the experiences of previous generations, to learn about people’s origins and the histories of the regions they inhabited. Language was an archive of knowledge.

The early modern Hispanic territories, like all pre-modern societies, were multilingual. The Spanish king viewed this polyglossia as a necessary corollary of ruling over the wide array of lands, climates, and natures that made up his vast composite realms. Writers of all genres were invested in studying languages and considered the knowledge that words contained as central to resolving a great variety of questions. Etymology, or the study of names, had the capacity to reveal great amounts of information about the objects that words signified and could be approached in diverse ways. These ranged from the exegetical to the mystical, to the historical, to the philosophical. Place names contained traces of their founders. The names of plants and animals revealed traces of those who had named them. The words used to designate objects and rituals betrayed clues about their purposes and functions.

Pages upon pages of etymological discussions abound in the writings of the first chroniclers of the Indies. Throughout the course of my research on the philosophy of language in early Latin America I came to appreciate the significance of these extensive linguistic digressions. They offer a window into the ways in which native authorities explained the foundation of their towns, their genealogies, and the order of the flora and fauna that surrounded them.

The island of Hispaniola, only recently known by its Hispanic appellation, was actually, and more meaningfully, called Haití. Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1457–1526), like most sixteenth-century chroniclers of the Indies, began his history of the Caribbean by presenting the etymology of the words that the natives used to designate their homeland. He distinguished between their ancient language and their current one and attempted to explain the reasoning behind the toponyms. The primitive inhabitants of those islands had given first the name of Quizqueia and then Haití to Hispaniola. These denominations, he warned, “were not the children of fickleness, but of the meaning that they had.” Quizqueia is “a big thing that does not have an equal.” This word signified “vastness, universe, everything.” Martire compared this name to the word Pan (all) that the Greeks used to refer to their islands, since, like the Caribbean Indians, they believed that their “magnitude was the whole orb, and that the sun does not warm anything else [but theirs] and the neighboring islands.”

Haití was equally expressive. It signified, in the ancient language of the islanders, roughness. The natives of Haití applied the designation to the whole territory, through metonymy. In many parts of Haití “expanses of steep mounts can be found, thick and terrifying jungles, and fearful and dark valleys given the altitude of its mounts, and in other parts it is very pleasant.” In their use of metonymy, Martire reflected that the Indians resembled the poets that sometimes referred to all of Italy as Lazio (Latium), which was formally the name of one central region. Quizqueia contained clues as to the native’s worldview and Haití information about the physical landscape of the island.[ii]

Martire’s intellectual rival Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478–1557) used the study of names to convey his authoritative eyewitness status when describing countless plants and animals previously unknown to Europeans. The iguanas that lived throughout the islands and on the mainland were not, as Martire had claimed, similar to the crocodiles of the Egyptian Nile. These new world “dragons” were much smaller than those creatures. It was unclear to Oviedo whether they were aquatic or terrestrial and whether they could be consumed during Lent. That was best for each to decide.

Despite his uncertainties, Oviedo could attest to their size, since he had seen many of them and even kept a few in his home. The “yuana,” he explained meticulously, “is pronounced y and after a short interval u and then the three subsequent letters ana are uttered together, and in this way in the whole name [one] makes two stops in the manner in which it has been described.”[iii] Oviedo went to great pains to replicate the sounds of the animal’s native name.

When Echave published his book 50 years after the death of Oviedo, his friend Fernándo de Ojeda composed a short prologue to exalt the treatise’s accomplishments.  Thinking about the linguistic change that had ensued since the arrival of the first Spaniards as a consequence of conquest and population demise, Ojeda challenged the notion that the spread of empire is always accompanied by the complete linguistic assimilation of those defeated. “Even though it is true,” Ojeda conceded, “that, as it has always been said, conquerors and their languages consume the speeches of vanquished peoples: This does not apply to the names of provinces, mountains, rivers, and springs, even if they are a bit altered, as we experience in the infinite provinces of these Indies, which still conserve with little variation its ancient names, because even though we renamed many of them in the Spanish fashion: these have been forgotten or have fallen out of use altogether and the old names of the Indians prevail, even after all of them have died-out in some parts.” Ojeda presented the case of the Caribbean islands and other regions in the mainland, like “Cuba, which the Spaniards named in the beginning Fernandina,” and also “in Habana, Bayamo, Jamayca, Yucatan, Chapultepec, Campeche, Mexico, Mechuacan, Tezcuco, Tlaxcala and Cholula, which are all Indian words.”[iv] The omnipresence of long-winded and excruciatingly detailed etymological discussions, despite seeming fantastical and naive to a modern reader, reveals just how central they were to the early modern scholar in ascertaining and presenting to a distant audience reliable and authoritative local knowledge.

 Plantin Press, 1598). Original in the Jonh Carter Brown Library at Brown University.










Detail from Abraham Ortelius’ map of Cuba and surrounding islands showing the names Hispaniola and “Ayti.” Abraham Ortelius, “Hispaniolae, Cubae, aliarumque insularum circumiacientium, delineatio,” Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: Plantin Press, 1598). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. 










Detail from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s Historia general y natural de las Indias. 1a. parte (Sevilla: En la emprenta de Juana Cromberg, 1535). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



[i] Baltasar de Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada compuestos por Balthasar de Echave, natural de la Villa de Çumaya en la Provincia de Guipuzcoa, y vezino de Mexico. (Mexico : Henrrico Martínez, 1607), 83r.-84v.

[ii] Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, Décadas del Nuevo Mundo, trans. by Edmundo O’Gorman (México: J. Porrúa, 1964), 2 vols., Decade III, Book VII, p. 351.

[iii] Gonzalo Fernández Oviedo, Historia General de las Indias, islas y tierra firme del mar océano (Madrid: Imprenta de la Real Academia de la Historia, 1851), Book XII, Cap. VII, pp. 392-396, p. 393.

[iv]  Fray Hernando de Ojeda, “ Fray Hernando de Ojeda de la orden de Santo Domingo a su amigo, Balthasar de Echave en loor de esta obra,” in Echave, Discursos de la antiguedad de la lengua Cántabra-Bascongada.


The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.