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[Xmca-l] Z sign (John Haviland)

So I promised a while back to report back about some of John Haviland's
findings regarding Z sign. Now that everyone (in the U.S.) is full of
turkey and potatoes, I finally have a minute.

Z sign refers to a sign language that has been developing among a small
family of deaf signers in Chiapas, Mexico ("Z" stands for Zinacantecan,
which is the spoken language of the area). John has been doing fieldwork
there for almost 50 years and since the oldest Z signer is in her 30's, his
fieldwork predates this emerging sign language.

All told, there are a total of 6 people who know this sign language -
including a bi-lingual nephew and John himself. It might be one less than
this since it might be argued that the first and oldest Z signer is not
properly using the language as it has emerged with the younger signers. In
fact, the younger signers (two brothers) often make fun of their older
sister for not being able to produce the "proper" and "correct" signs,
sometimes in ways that appears to express rather serious judgment -
suggesting that their sister is too stupid to know any better. As John
notes, this is the dark side of language - the way that language behavior
is often re-valorized as iconic of other aspects of a person's self (think
about the U.S. example of African-American English as evaluated by
mainstream speakers who will comment that AAE speakers must be "ignorant"
or some such).

John's data are fascinating through and through. For example, the sign for
chicken involves making the gesture of a pulling the chicken's neck to
break it.

John documents how you can begin to see Z sign becoming grammaticalized
with subject-verb-object structure emerging such that Z signers can produce
full sentences and engage in quite complex conversations ("homesigners" -
i.e., people who do not have a signing community and are born deaf to
hearing parents and living in a hearing community - homesigners have great
difficulty sustaining longer conversations).

Of particular interest to XMCA conversations, John makes the point that
these signs are both motivated (qua icons) and symbolic (not sure if I've
quite captured his terms here, so don't quote me on that). That is to say,
the signs, such as the gesture of breaking a chicken's neck to represent
chicken, are both iconic and symbolic. They are the latter because the
possibilities of making up gestural icons for chickens are massively varied
(and if you look at American Sign Language (ASL), for example, the sign for
chicken is to make a beak in front of your mouth with your thumb and
forefinger). So what becomes important is that the sign becomes
conventionalized (and note that the older sister has a different sign for
"chicken" - hers is the gesture of holding the chicken at its shoulders,
with both hands cupped - and this is what her brothers make fun of her
for). These signs become "portable" - that is, they come to mean the same
thing across contexts and with different speakers. And the brothers' sign
for chicken is consistent across different instances of chicken. Thus, for
example, an image of two cute fluffy little baby chicks will still get the
neck-breaking sign plus a sign for little and a sign for two (here is
further grammaticalization at work - classifiers and all).

What seems to me to be one of the most interesting findings (and one that
John finds most troubling) is that these brothers seem to have very much
"gotten" the culture of the hearing Zinacantecan speakers with whom they
are living. As John describes them, these brothers behave very much like
people in the surrounding culture. It is as if they are, culturally
speaking, Zinacantecan. Yet, on the other hand (no pun...), the grammatical
forms of Z signers do not follow the grammatical forms of the surrounding
language, Zinacantecan. This does not fit very well into the linguistic
relativity argument (i.e., that the language you speak affects the way that
you understand and think about the world). If language affects thought,
then one would expect to find that if you have someone speaking a
grammatically and formally different language, then that person would think
differently from those who speak that language. And yet, here is data
suggesting the opposite is the case.

It seems to me that CHAT might have something to offer here with the notion
of "activity" as a broader concept that goes beyond language. Perhaps
something like "semiosic activity" is needed to capture all of the many
ways in which we meaningfully interact with one another anticipating
behaviors of others based on so much more than just language - on their
facial expressions and bodily hexis and non-signed gestural expressions.
This would suggest renaming the hypothesis the Semiosic Activity Relativity
Hypothesis (SARH).

I think that could be a quite useful turn, but it still leaves one
wondering why these semiosic activities didn't "bleed into" the formal
features of Z sign as it emerged among this group?

Lots of other interesting questions to pursue here but I'll leave it at
that for now. I wonder if folks are tired/busy from all the chatting
(online and elsewhere).

I'm happy to answer questions about this sign language to the best of my
ability and/or to see if I can get John involved or at least put some
questions to him by email and see if I can get a response.


Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
880 Spencer W. Kimball Tower
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602