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Documenting language in visual and tactile modalities

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Title: Documenting language in visual and tactile modalities
Authors: Ali, Kristian
Braithwaite, Ben
Dhanoolal, Ian
Elvin, Kimone
Issue Date: 05 Mar 2017
Description: The Bay Islands are comprised of Roatán, Guanaja and Utila. Although politically part of Honduras, they share demographic, cultural and linguistic roots with other parts of the Caribbean, especially the Cayman Islands, to which most Bay Islanders trace their ancestry. The people who moved from the Cayman Islands in the nineteenth century, also seem to have brought with them the genes for Usher Syndrome, associated with prelingual deafness, and gradual loss of sight (Doran 1952). In Roatan, the largest of the three islands, there are several deaf and deafblind people living in the village of French Harbour. A deaf woman from French Harbour also married a deaf man from Guanaja, where they continue to live. Research in August 2016 found that an indigenous sign language was used by deaf people and their friends and family members in French Harbour. In Guanaja, where a deaf man provides honey and other products to the whole of the island, this language is used very widely by hearing inhabitants. In addition to this shared sign language (Nyst 2012), there is a tactile variety, used by hearing, deaf and deaf-blind people, in conversations where at least one of the participants is deafblind. The documentation of a language in the tactile modality presents special challenges, in terms of both documentation and description. For example, video recordings do not always provide an adequate record of language use, and linguistic theory is not well equipped to provide an appropriate framework within which to describe tactile phonology. There are special methodological considerations. We found that a research team which included two Deaf researchers allowed us to gain insights which would have been otherwise impossible. The rationale for documenting a language like this also differs from more familiar cases. The language is certainly of theoretical interest, offering the possibility of new insights into the limits of human linguistic behaviour. Indeed, as far as we know, this is the first attempt to describe what might be called a ‘rural tactile sign language’. More important is the role of the language in the lives its users. The deaf and deaf-blind people in these communities have families, jobs, and rich social lives, made possible by the existence of a language shared beyond families, and expressed in multiple modalities. It is difficult to imagine a case in which the link between language and well- being could be clearer. References: Doran, Edwin. 1952. “Inbreeding in an Isolated Island Community.”Journal of Heredity(43): 263–266. Nyst, Victoria. 2012. “Shared Sign Languages.” In Sign Language. An International Handbook, edited by Roland Pfau, Markus Steinbach, and Bencie Woll, 552–574. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Appears in Collections:5th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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