Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Erich Fox Tree presented two co-authored papers on Native American sign languages during the annual winter meetings of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, which took place in Boston on Jan. 3-6.
In a paper titled “Comparative Analyses of American Indigenous Signed Language,” given in a panel on the areal linguistics of Native American languages, Fox Tree and linguist Dr. Jeffrey Davis of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, presented evidence from what was the first systematic structural comparison of the sign languages of the Great Plains and Mesoamerica.
Davis is one of the world’s leading experts on the history Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). Fox Tree is one of the leading scholars of indigenous signing in Mexico and Guatemala. While some similarities they encountered could be attributed to typological explanations, others –such as several semantic classifiers used for large lexical domains—suggest either extensive pre-European contact or an ancient common origin, thereby challenging established theories about the age and origin of indigenous sign systems.
In a paper titled “Absence of Color Terms in an Indigenous Sign Language Dialect of Guatemala,” given in a panel on Lexicography and Applied Linguistics, Fox Tree and K’ichee’-Maya activist Julia Gómez Ixmatá discussed the lack of basic color terms in Gómez’s native sign language dialect, called Meemul Tziij or Meemul Ch’aab’al, “mute language.”
Instead of having signs for colors such as black, white or red, the Meemul Tziij dialect of the Guatemalan town of Nahualá uses an unusual pointing sign that means “this color.” While lack of signs for specific colors is not unusual in very young sign languages, such as “home-sign” systems frequently developed by deaf children who grow up without exposure established sign languages, large or multi-generationally transmitted sign languages (not to mention almost all spoken languages) generally have at least two “basic color terms” and usually at least a few more conventional, even if not monomorphemic terms for color.
Fox Tree and Gómez argued that Nahualá’s context-sensitive system for color is noteworthy because (1) it privileges mutual agreement between interlocutors about color over idealized a priori cognitive notions of specific colors, and (2) it conventionalizes, if not altogether grammaticalizes, environmental factors, such as colored clothes, into the structure of the language.