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Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:University of California-San Diego
  • John B Haviland
  • (858) 534-6313
Award Date:05/19/2011
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 100,000
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 100,000
  • FY 2011=$100,000
Start Date:05/15/2011
End Date:09/30/2017
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.075
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:Zinacantec Family Home Sign: Structure and Socialization in the First and Second Generations of a Spontaneous Emerging Sign Language
Federal Award ID Number:1053089
DUNS ID:804355790
Parent DUNS ID:071549000
Program Officer:
  • Joan Maling
  • (703) 292-8046

Awardee Location

Street:Office of Contract & Grant Admin
City:La Jolla
County:La Jolla
Awardee Cong. District:49

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:University of California-San Diego
Street:Office of Contract & Grant Admin
City:La Jolla
County:La Jolla
Cong. District:49

Abstract at Time of Award

Zinacantec Family Homesign (ZFHS) is a new sign language which has emerged spontaneously over the past three decades in a single family in a remote Mayan Indian village in Chiapas, Mexico. It provides a unique opportunity to explore fundamental questions about the nature, origins, and evolution of human language. Three profoundly deaf siblings, their hearing age-mates, and now their infant children, have had contact with no other deaf people nor with any pre-existing sign language. Through periodic video recording of ZFHS signers the project will study (1) formational principles in the emerging structure of the sign language, especially the "portability" of signs; (2) evidence of morphological structure, the emergence of grammatical categories and syntax; (3) potential typological and structural relations between ZFHS and spoken Tzotzil; (4) possible sources for ZFHS sign in Tzotzil co-speech gesture; and (5) the sociolinguistics of the ZFHS speech community, including variation in the first generation and emerging linguistic properties in the second. By combining a detailed linguistic and sociolinguistic analysis of ZFHS as evidenced by adult usage with systematic longitudinal study of the infants' bilingual socialization into language, the project will contribute in a unique way to scientific understanding of how human communicative needs recruit, transform, and structure complementary modalities, both visible and audible, to fashion language itself. Research on the languages of the deaf, especially as they evolve in "natural" conditions, has an ameliorative contribution to make both to linguistics as a discipline and to the deaf speakers of such languages. More broadly, this research will make a direct contribution to an old question with resurgent interest: how is human language created, and how does it evolve and structure itself, in different sorts of "speech communities" (even, as in this case, minimal ones) over the time course of successive human generations.

Publications Produced as a Result of this Research

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John B. Haviland "?But you said ?four sheep?.!?: (sign) language, ideology, and self (esteem) across generations in a Mayan family" Language & Communication, v.46, 2016, p.62. doi: 

John B. Haviland "(Mis)understanding and Obtuseness: ?Ethnolinguistic Borders? in a Miniscule Speech Community" Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, v.23, 2013, p.160.

John B. Haviland "Where does ?where do nouns come from?? come from?" Gesture, v.13, 2013, p.245.

JOhn B. Havialnd "?Hey!?" Topics in Cognitive Science, v.7, 2015, p.124. doi:DOI: 10.1111/tops.12126 

John B. Haviland "?But you said ?four sheep?.!?: (sign) language, ideology, and self (esteem) across generations in a Mayan family" Language & Communication, v., 2016, p.62. doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2015.10.006 

John B. Haviland "Hey!" Topics in Cogntiive Science, v.7, 2015, p.124.

John B. Haviland "The emerging grammar of nouns in a first generation sign language: specification, iconicity, and syntax" Gesture, v.13, 2013, p.309.

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

Research in an extended family of Mayan Indians in an isolated community in highland Chiapas, Mexico, shows how even a tiny community of deaf individuals, with no direct contact with any language, spoken or signed, can within a single generation invent a spontaneous sign language with a complex grammar.

Figure 1here: simplified genealogy of the Z family

Three deaf siblings have grown up together, without contact with other deaf people and exposed to no other sign language and only indirectly to the Mayan language spoken in the surrounding village.  Separated in age by thirteen years, the siblings have turned a simple system of gestures used first by the oldest deaf sister, Jane (see Figure 1), into a sign language, we have called “Z.”  They have invented for themselves grammatical structures found in other languages, both spoken and signed.  The project has demonstrated remarkable linguistic features in Z: conventionalized vocabulary, grammatical formatives, shared syntax and morphology, along with pragmatic and conversational organization. 


Z accomplishes much work with pointing, both concrete and abstract.  Figure 2 shows Frank signing “4:30 PM,” pointing first at his left wrist (where a watch might be—although not on him), then holding up four fingers, then sweeping across his palm with his other index finger, to indicate “half.”

Figure 2 here: Frank signs ‘4:30’

The language uses representational gestures and combines them with more abstract elements in a surprisingly elaborate and general way.  For example, a simple noun—the sign for which usually somehow depicts what it stands for—is normally combined with a more abstract element, called a “specifier,” to indicate size and shape; it may also be followed by a number.  Thus, the sign for ‘chicken’ involves a stylized pantomime (based on the way villagers typically kill chickens with a sharp jerk to break the animal’s neck).  To sign “two chicks” Will signs first a tiny size/shape specifier to show the small size, then ‘chicken’ (miming the sharp jerk people use to break a chicken’s neck), followed by the number ‘two,’ as in Figure 3.

Figure 3 here: Will signs ‘two chicks’


Despite the extremely small size of the Z language community, principled variation is evident among the half-dozen or so fluent signers, accompanied by strong opinions about proper signing, appropriate usage, and variation in individual signing skill.  For example, in Figure 4 Jane signs ‘chicken’ in her normal way, with just the specifier (showing how one might hold a grown hen).

Figure 4 here: Jane signs ‘chicken’

Frank frowns angrily in reply, and retorts by demonstratively signing an exaggerated version of the full “neck-breaking” conventionalized sign favored by the younger signers (Figure 5).

Figure 5 here: Frank angrily makes the neck-breaking sign for ‘chicken’

This project has created a documentary archive of over 400 hours of Z signing, including a unique record of the first 10 years of the 2nd generation native signer.  Most of the archive consists of multiple synchronized views of Z signing, allowing close analysis of interaction between multiple interlocutors.  (Figure 6 is a split-screen image combining two such views to show how different participants direct their gaze as a conversation unfolds.)  Z represents a unique situation, although doubtless analogous to instances of rapid language emergence repeated innumerable times in human history, but until now virtually undocumented. This archive, and what it can teach us about the human ability to create language, will be available to science for future exploration and discovery.   

Figure 6 here: Split screen view of synchronized videos


The project has also developed a variety of field techniques for primary research on undescribed sign languages, partly to allow semi-formal elicitation of forms, and partly to inspire spontaneous “natural” discourse in signed interaction, and to explore the ethnography of its use in ordinary contexts.  Methods were tailored to specific analytical objectives: (1) testing for lexical consistency across the full cohort of signers; (2) testing specific hypothesis about the formal expression of lexical categories (particularly, nouns and verbs); (3) complex narrative stimuli to test “reference tracking,” i.e., keeping track of who is doing what to whom; (4) methods for tracing the growth in the 2nd generation signer’s ability to use Z, as well as spoken Tzotzil; (5) exploring contexts for spontaneous conversation among the signers, including novel extra-eliciting activities (assembling complex jigsaw puzzles, engaging in garden and household work, etc.); and (6) to encourage spontaneous expression of metalinguistic notions (corrections, repairs, critiques, etc.) even in the midst of somewhat constrained and artificial semi-elicitation activities. A large body of stimulus materials, hopefully of wide applicability, has been produced. It will be available on request to the scientific community.


Last Modified: 11/06/2017
Modified by: John B Haviland

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