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Documenting sign language in South Rupununi, Guyana

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Title:Documenting sign language in South Rupununi, Guyana
Authors:Braithwaite, Ben
Kwok, Lily
Omardeen, Rehana
Contributors:Braithwaite, Ben (speaker)
Kwok, Lily (speaker)
Omardeen, Rehana (speaker)
Date Issued:05 Mar 2017
Description:This paper describes initial efforts at documenting a previously undescribed signed language used by deaf and hearing people living in the southern Rupununi Savannah, Guyana. The southern Rupununi is populated primarily by Wapishana villages, spread across the savannah south of Lethem. Deafness is quite common, apparently as a result of genetic factors, and deaf people are spread across at least seven different villages. There is contact between deaf people in different villages, and an indigenous sign language is used both among deaf people, and between deaf people and their hearing family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues. A signed language appears to have been in use for several generations, and across a wide area, including across the border in Brazil. Initial documentation was based on recordings with eleven deaf signers from across the area. The researchers developed culturally specific materials to elicit core vocabulary which was used to give an indication of lexical variation across the region. We also recorded naturalistic conversation of various forms: 1. Signing between two deaf individuals; 2. Signing between a hearing individual and a deaf individual; and 3. Signing between a deaf individual and one of the researchers. These recordings have lead to an initial sketch of some aspects of the structure of the language, and established the desire within the community for further collaborative work. Interest in language documentation was prompted partly by an awareness of the possibility of contact with larger, internationally recognised sign languages, including Brazilian Sign Language and American Sign Language , especially through the establishment of special educational programmes. The existing sign language is a crucial and culturally relevant tool for use in the education of deaf people locally, and is preferred by the community members to importing a foreign system to serve the same purpose. Language documentation cannot be easily separated from broader concerns regarding the human rights and well-being of deaf people in the region. The language currently serves a crucial role in ensuring that deaf people across the region are generally well integrated into community activities, including farming, employment, and a broad range of cultural activities. Some deaf children, however, especially in more remote areas, do not have access to it, or to any other signed language, in the crucial early years.
Appears in Collections: 5th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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