Usted es haragán pero vos sos lazy: Contact Phenomena in Honduran Sign Language

Peter Cahill

University of Pittsburgh


Initialization and fingerspelling, outcomes of language contact involving visual-gestural languages, have become global phenomena. Summarily defined, initialization is the incorporation of the orthography of a word of a dominant spoken language via the cultural construct of a manual orthography into signs with a semantic correspondence to that word. Fingerspelling utilizes the manual orthography to represent the entire orthography of a word of a dominant spoken language in a sequential manner. Despite their omnipresence within (relatively) well-documented sign languages such as ASL (American Sign Language), AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language) and LSQ (Québec Sign Language), the literature on these subjects is very small. To assist in expanding the nascent fields of Deaf sociolinguistics and anthropology, ethnographic research involving primarily corpus building, interviews and participant observation was performed within the Deaf community of central Honduras to answer the following questions: what linguistic features of initialization and fingerspelling are present in LESHO (Honduran Sign Language); what social constructs are marked by initialization and fingerspelling; and what do these phenomena have to offer Deaf anthropology and linguistics. On the linguistic tier, the study reveals phonological and morphological structures and nuances not yet documented. The sociolinguistic tier demonstrates that the construction of the phenomenon differs greatly from what has been documented in the case of the sign languages in the North American cultural sphere. Finally, the study provides a method of empirically critiquing and evaluating theories regarding the anthropological basis of initialization and fingerspelling and the language ideology which surround them. Furthermore, social relationships and these constructions are studied by means of this linguistic marker. The three relationships explored via initialization and fingerspelling are: the Deaf and the hearing; the Honduran and the foreign; and the Deaf amongst themselves. In particular, the data revealed do not fit well into current theories in sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology, as none have explanatory value for the various semiotic processes that these phenomena mark. However, borrowing a theoretical framework from mimetic theory – an interdisciplinary framework currently used in anthropology, psychology, political science and literary theory – the quandaries caused by the data can be resolved. Combining insight from mimetic theory with sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology offers a unified and efficient explanation for the semiotic processes that surround contact phenomena in Honduran Sign Language.