“But you said ‘four sheep’ …!”: (sign) language, ideology, and self (esteem) across generations in a Mayan family


Sign language can emerge in even a small cohort of three deaf siblings.

Language “choices” both reflect and project individual life trajectories.

Sign forms are themselves miniature chronotopes, with biographical overtones.

Language divisions and social divisions are mutually constitutive in even a minimal language community.

Metalinguistic attitudes mutually reinforce social evaluations.


A first generation family sign language, dubbed Z, emerging in a single extended household in an otherwise Tzotzil-speaking community of indigenous peasants in highland Chiapas, Mexico, provides an example of both rapid language creation and change and of the evolution of ideologies of appropriate language form and use in even such a minimal speech/sign community. Adding the new sign language to (the bottom end of) an existing inventory of differentially evaluated language varieties, including Tzotzil and Spanish, positions the signers with respect not only to hearing speakers, but to one another. The most striking contrast presented is between the oldest fluent signer—the first deaf person in her community—trapped by her sign language, and the youngest—her hearing son—propelled beyond it.


  • Deaf;
  • Sign language;
  • Emerging language;
  • Language socialization;
  • Language ideology

1. Introduction

For the past few years I have been studying the manual communication system in a single household in highland Chiapas, Mexico, dubbed “Zinacantec family Homesign” or “Z” for short. The township of Zinacantán is a heavily studied (for example, Vogt, 1969, Vogt, 1976, Laughlin, 1975, Collier, 1975, Collier, 1968, Cancian, 1965, Cancian, 1972, Cancian, 1994 and Haviland, 1977) largely “indigenous” community where nearly everyone speaks Tzotzil (Mayan) as a first language. Formerly peasant corn-farmers and itinerant traders, some Zinacantecs over the past half century have become bilingual or at least well educated in Spanish and have moved into professions or entrepreneurial activities (from teaching, to large and small scale flower or agricultural farming, to transport or trade in everything from vegetables to acrylic yarns and patent medicines). When I first began ethnographic work in Chiapas, half a century ago, the community was determinedly monolingual in Tzotzil, although the oldest men in the township were the most likely to speak Spanish—often ungrammatical but prolific in obscenities—because their erstwhile work as muleteers had brought them into more intimate contact with ladinos (non-Indians) than did their sons' almost exclusive economic reliance on milpa cultivation at mid century. (Similarly, some elderly ladinos in San Cristóbal, especially those who relied on trade with Indians, could once speak passable commercial Tzotzil, something now unheard of among non-Indian Mexicans.) Nowadays in Zinacantán it is teenagers and young adults who are most likely to trade text messages in Spanish, although some lament that they never learned to write in Tzotzil, which would be more useful as a private code. 1 Although there once used to be a significant number of Spanish speaking residents in the township, culturally non-Indian but with kinship and commercial links to the community, and bilingual in Tzotzil, almost all of these people have now left Zinacantán. Now only a few individuals remain in the township—most notably ladina wives who have moved into their Zinacantec husbands' homes—who are effectively monolingual in Spanish.

Adding an emergent “homesign” system (Goldin-Meadow, 2003) like “Z” to the language mix complicates matters, most notably by adding a third layer of potential linguistic difference to the community. In addition to Tzotzil monolinguals, those who also speak Spanish, and the few Spanish monolinguals, there are—at least in the tiny social world of the Z household—also deaf signers who speak no Tzotzil, and a few hearing signers fluent in both Z and Tzotzil. In terms of size alone, but also given how they are represented in individuals' repertoires as well as the presumed attribution of different sorts of value to these linguistic varieties—evidence for which I present in this chapter—we can provisionally arrange these different languages by rank,2 as follows: Z < Tzotzil < Spanish. Refining this crude scale against the actual complex linguistic trajectories of individuals, and calibrating it both with respect to the social selves speakers project (or have projected upon them), and against different time scales—that of an entire language, the lifespans of individuals, and the embedded temporalities of individual sign forms themselves—will be the main tasks of this essay.

Talk of “values” and “ranks” for languages is, of course, ideological talk, and it does not square well with the standard lessons one imparts to fledgling linguists about the ultimate equivalence of even the most “exotic” and endangered languages. The tenor of most academic research on emerging sign languages—like that of sign linguistics in general—has an even stronger polemic: to show that even relatively young sign languages display (or move quickly towards) certain familiar kinds of linguistic structure: parts of speech (see, for example, Haviland, 2015b), morphosyntax, and duality of patterning, among others. As a researcher one often feels compelled to de-emphasize difference or limitation, and to assert comparability and complexity even in a first-generation sign language like Z: to show, that is, that Z is a language. Nonetheless, our researchers' prejudices against attributing differential values to languages stand in obvious conflict with ubiquitous and undeniable local social valuations. However much we might argue that Tzotzil, for example, displays complex synthetic morphology, ergative syntax, and delicate semantic partitioning of different denotational domains, or that its developed speech genres rival the richness of any literary tradition, or that it equips its most masterful speakers with rhetorical skills that would be the envy of any Western politician, it remains a perhaps sad fact that in many situations Tzotzil speakers readily abandon the language in favor of Spanish (or, when immigrating to the United States, English). In the present case, as we shall see, the hearing members of the signing Z family hardly imagine that signing enriches the lives of those who should also be able to learn to speak. (In fact, they find curious and a bit comical my obsessive linguist's interest in Z, which they sometimes characterize as merely a system for ak'el iluk ‘showing’ rather than k'opojel ‘speaking’ or alel ‘saying.’)

The values and stigmas associated with specific linguistic varieties accrue ideologically to individuals who manifest them in their communicative repertoires; moreover, familiar properties of such language ideologies (Gal and Irvine, 2000) imply that languages, whether spoken or signed, project onto individuals associated with them other, parallel scales of value, including—in the case of Z—scales of personhood and social age. In this essay I step back from my own ideology as a linguist who concentrates on the undeniable details of Z linguistic structure, to reflect ethnographically on the preoccupations, attitudes, and decisions that shape what it means to be a Z signer in the community itself.

After introducing the full—if tiny—Z speech (i.e., sign) community, I concentrate on the signing of the first deaf person in the extended family and then turn to the single fluent second generation signer, her hearing son. How has he been socialized into language, and what sort of person is he as a result? How is this consequentially different from the situation of his mother? I rely on aspects of directed acquisition to adduce evidence for nascent linguistic norms, or standards of well-formedness, in the emerging sign language—that is, in part, to show that Z is, indeed, formally a language in the received sense. The phenomena I present are thus intended to help us reflect on the biographical, sociological, and corporeal bases of creating a language, as it were, out of thin air. More pertinent for the present collection, I consider how linguistic interventions and interactions among signers, and between caregivers and child, shape not only signers' linguistic abilities but also their senses of what kind of (communicating) persons they are, contrasting the case of the bilingual child as he grows into language with that of his monolingual signing mother, the first and for several years the only deaf person in the family.

2. Z

Fig. 1 shows an abbreviated genealogy of the community of Z signers, including the three deaf siblings, their hearing sister, and several further hearing native signing nephews and nieces who grew up in this extended household with Z and spoken Tzotzil as their means of communication. Z has emerged with no input from other sign languages or deaf people. Vic, son of Jane, the first signer, is the child whose growing linguistic capacities and sense(s) of self are, along with those of his mother, the main focus of this essay.

Consider the sort of linguistic experience Jane must have had, as the only deaf person in her household (and, indeed, in her entire village) for the first 6 years of her life, with no direct access to any language system. Contrast this with the language learning experience of her son Vic, born with normal hearing thirty years later into a household where, at least at first, his caregivers communicated with him by preference in the already emerging family homesign, as well as in spoken Tzotzil. What sorts of conceptual tools and categories did Jane develop as she interacted with the world around her? How did she come to understand her own communicative abilities and, consequently, her place in the world? Part of what both Jane and Vic clearly had available to work with was the system of speaker's gesture prominently displayed when Zinacantecs talk. But how different those same resources must have been for Jane as opposed to Vic! It is partly the different time scales implied by these contrasts that I mean to explore in this essay: the difference between being a lone first speaker vs. a learner in a speech community, and between having power over fashions of speaking (by being able to adapt and change them in consequential ways) vs. being held in their thrall. My ironic conclusion will be that Jane, the oldest and original signer, is the individual most trapped in the language, whereas her son Vic, possibly the very last fluent Z signer, is in important ways freed of its constraints and those of the miniature community in which it is embedded.

2.1. Fashions of signing: Jane

In a previous publication (Haviland, 2013), I took Z as an almost limiting case of a speech community, at the miniature end of the scale, where language variation reflects internal social divisions. The leading example was how Jane signs ‘chicken.’ Virtually all of the other Z signers normally perform ‘chicken’ by combining what, in sign language linguistics, is often called a “size and shape specifier” (or SASS) with a nominal “characterizing sign” based on a characteristic related action. The first element illustrates the physical dimensions of a nominal referent by showing in a stylized way how the object in question is held and handled. Fig. 2 shows Will signing ‘rooster,’ starting with the SASS. He goes on to perform the conventional Z characterizer for ‘chicken,’ a pantomimic enactment which illustrates the quick jerk by which Zinacantecs normally kill such domestic fowl (Fig. 3).

By contrast, Jane almost always spontaneously signs ‘chicken’ by using just the SASS, as for example in Fig. 4, taken from a long narrative in which Jane is telling her sisters that a chicken—which she mentions here for the first time—has eaten some vegetables planted at home (see Haviland, 2014). Such performances normally generate neither misunderstanding nor comment: the other signers, on this occasion, unambiguously interpreted Jane to be talking about a chicken.

Following familiar axioms of historical linguistics, the language-internal contrast between Jane's signing and that of the younger signers suggests an instance of grammatical development in Z where Jane's presumed early efforts at communicating about common objects primarily employed (proto)SASS elements. Over time these SASS signs appear to have been gradually supplemented by characterizing elements, at least in the signing of her younger brothers. One can speculate that one of Jane's early “nouns” might have been ‘chicken,’ given the important role of the birds in the domestic economy into which she was socialized as a little girl. A lone SASS might generally have been referentially adequate, at least in a given speech context, in Jane's early productions, although one imagines that as the inventory of possible “nouns” increased, further specification—sometimes in the form of added characterizing enactments—emerged, leading to an expanded syntagm for nominal referents of the form SASS+Characterizer. There is, in other words, a time frame embedded in the sign form: Jane's habitual signing indexes an earlier moment in (developmental) time than that of her brothers; it also indexes her both as older than they chronologically, and, notably, as more childlike in her signing insofar as her habitual signing reflects what would have been an earlier form in the signing of her brothers.

I should emphasize that Jane's apparently simpler signing is by itself evidence of neither referential nor linguistic deficiency. As to the former, I have only rarely seen her interlocutors misunderstand her when she refers to a chicken with just a SASS. The other signers know that, other things being equal, this is how she does it. In her “ideolect,” that is, the bare SASS is recognizable as her sign for ‘chicken.’ Nor is it the case, as regards “deficiency,” that she simply lacks the more elaborated form. Consider, for example, the following sequence, drawn from a description of a photograph in which two cats are staring out of a window with a small chicken standing outside. Jane signs ‘cat,’ and ‘try/want to eat’; she then signs a “full” chicken clause, complete with SASS (Fig. 5), a rapid neck-jerk characterizer (Fig. 6—note that Jane performs the motion downwards rather than sideways), and a “verb” (Fig. 7). The whole utterance can be glossed as “A chicken is looking inside/toward the viewer.” The example suggests that when clarifying argument structure, or differentiating multiple possible participants in an event, Jane is perfectly able to distinguish among various nominal constituents by adding a characterizer to a SASS, despite the fact that she routinely does not bother to do so (at least when referring to chickens).

Nonetheless, Jane sometime suffers severe criticism from her brothers for her signing, especially in the competitive picture matching tasks I routinely subject the signers to as an elicitation technique. For example, describing a scene where a single chicken is scratching for food among corn cobs strewn on the ground, Jane used just a SASS (Fig. 8), followed by signs depicting the chicken standing and scratching, then the sign for corn on the cob (Fig. 9), and finally repeating the initial SASS (Fig. 10).

If one understands Jane's signs at Fig. 8 and Fig. 10 as her conventional lexeme for ‘chicken’ rather than (or as well as) a more general SASS, the denotational content of her description seems reasonably clear: “a chicken, standing, with corncobs on the ground.” However, on this occasion and quite exceptionally, her brothers had a hard time finding a matching picture. Looking more broadly at the eliciting situation, it is not hard to see why the correct photo might have been difficult to pick out. The stimulus pictures on this day were mixed snapshots taken around the Z signers' house compound, and they were deliberately arranged to make them challenging to identify: close-ups of small objects, articles of clothing, fruits and vegetables, furniture, assorted tools both whole and broken, a few animals, random objects hanging from walls or thrown on the ground, and so on. The shots were neither carefully framed nor well-composed, and they thus often included multiple namable items, partly to encourage effusive signed descriptions, but also making them potentially confusing.

In any case, Frank and Will demanded clarification. Jane provided it, starting this time not with the chicken but with ‘corncob’ and ‘thrown on the ground’ (since, in fact, these items were in the center of the photograph to be described—see Fig. 21). She only then repeated her SASS for ‘chicken’ (Fig. 11) and a sign for ‘walking.’

After considerable discussion, the brothers ultimately figured out which picture Jane meant, but their reaction was demonstratively critical and dismissive. Will aimed an accusatory finger at Jane, while Frank, with escalating apparent grumpiness, presented her with ever more insistent “corrected” formulations (Fig. 12 and Fig. 13).

Frank ended his metalinguistic tantrum with a power-laden affective performance, directing an extremely annoyed look at Jane (Fig. 14), demonstrating an even more exaggerated neck-jerk (Fig. 15), then sharing his dissatisfaction over Jane's signing with a grimace to his by-stander sister Terry (Fig. 16) and a final head shake, eyes closed in exasperation. (Terry, the hearing sister of the deaf siblings, who was the first person to be fluent in both Z and Tzotzil, is a prominent background protagonist and interlocutor in what follows, although she does not appear in any of the illustrations of signing.)

In much the same way that the simpler noun phrase with just a SASS contrasts with the formally elaborated SASS+Characterizer version—corresponding both to a (supposed) ontogenetically prior versus a later epoch of invention, and also to a simpler vs. a more elaborated context of use—the interactive dynamic between sister and brothers also reveals a sociological and ideological asymmetry between speakers' “selves,” interactively projected and thereby rendered socially observable and consequential. The brothers' openly and somewhat brutally critical stance toward Jane's signing suggests, on the one hand, their own confidence about how to sign “correctly,” and, on the other, their construal of her different linguistic habits (and, by extension, her capacities more widely, communicative and otherwise) as inadequate, worthy of ridicule and (at least mimed) anger. Looking back on the entire eliciting session from which this example is drawn, I also intuit that part of Frank's exaggerated reaction to Jane's inadequate signing may also have come from the fact that, nearly an hour earlier in another part of the same eliciting session, Jane had already signed ‘chicken’ using just the SASS, and had received a much more good-natured criticism from Frank that she should have included the neck-jerk after the SASS.

How Jane herself feels in the face of her brothers' vitriolic scorn is harder to tell (and it is not easy to ask her directly). By carefully observing her reaction to Frank's apparently angry criticism shown in Fig. 14, Fig. 15 and Fig. 16 (dissected below with synchronized split screen images), we can gather indirect clues. She watches both brothers as they launch their first complaints (which are addressed to Terry, the hearing sister, who has been observing the conversation just off camera, having been instructed by me to give a running Tzotzil gloss on the signing as I work the video cameras in this semi-experimental eliciting context). Jane turns her gaze first to Will (Fig. 17) and then to Frank (Fig. 18) as they joke about her signing; she then looks back at Will as he complains that she signed ‘corn-on-the-cob’ (Fig. 19).

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