Meaning, gesture, and sign in Mesoamerica.


  • Jeremy Kuhn, Institut Jean Nicod, UMR8129
  • Co-PI, Carlo Geraci, Institut Jean Nicod,   UMR8129
  • Robert Henderson, Department of Linguistics, UArizona


Certain languages are particularly vulnerable to climate change and associated trends like migration and globalization. For related reasons, these languages resist treatment using "big data" techniques. There nevertheless exist cutting-edge methods for describing and analyzing the language of these small linguistic communities. The resulting scientific and cultural contribution of these languages Is consequently outsized relative to the size of the communities that use them. The CNRS-UArizona team's particular focus is the study of meaning. The two researchers are each expert in the semantics of understudied languages: D . Henderson in the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica; Dr. Kuhn in the sign languages used by Deaf communities worldwide. The project will study several spoken languages (K'ic e' et Tzotzil) and sign languages {Meemul Tzij a Z) used in Mesoamerica, with a focus on co-speech gestures and additional comparison to a European sign language (LSF). They will focus on the semantics of pluractionality and distributivity.

Climate change has and will continue to have an outsized impact on indigenous communities across the globe. The fact that these are additional areas of great biological and linguistic diversity makes the peril these communities face even more devastating. To deal with the global grand challenge of climate change and climate adaptation, it is critical to document, describe, and work to strengthen indigenous languages so that they have a chance to survive in the face of ecological change and associated effects like migration. We live in a time where we still have the opportunity to understand indigenous languages before the full force of climate disruption takes hold, and we should seize this opportunity. To this end, the proposed project focuses on a class of particularly poorly understood linguistic systems in Mesoamerica, which are in danger due to migration and due to migration and climate-induced social change. The researchers will study co-speech gestures in Mesoamerica and how those gestures have manifested (and potentially undergone grammaticalization) in Mesoamerican sign languages. As a point of comparison, these linguistic phenomena will be systematically compared to related semantic phenomena in a European sign language, French Sign Language (LSF).