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Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru

Brenda Clark

Sign Language Studies, Volume 17, Number 2, Winter 2017, pp. 222-264 (Article)

Published by Gallaudet University Press


For additional information about this article

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Sign Language Varieties

in Lima, Peru
This article examines the diversity of sign language varieties used in
Lima, Peru. The majority of the analysis is based on lexicostatistics,
using data collected in 2014 to compare nine signers and to deter-
mine foreign influences. This technique is used to better understand
the linguistic situation without the need for a large corpus of data.
Two distinct sign languages are identified: Peruvian Sign Language
among younger signers and a previously undocumented language
that this article calls Inmaculada Sign Language among the oldest
generation. A third variety, which acts as link between these two
languages, exhibits some features of a creole. All three varieties are
native in origin and show some influence from American Sign Lan-
guage (ASL), with the most ASL influence in Peruvian Sign Lan-
guage. The history of deaf education in Lima helps explain how the
two languages developed, and individual variation is described as
the product of social factors. The findings are in line with what has
been found in other surveys of supposedly uniform national sign

With many distinctive landscapes and native species, unique

indigenous cultures, and even seventy-five endangered spoken lan-
guages (Catalogue of Endangered Languages 2015), Peru is known
for its diversity.Yet, the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, G
­ lottolog
(Hammarström, Forkel, Haspelmath, and Bank 2015), Ethnologue
­(Lewis, Simons, and Fenning 2015), and the government of Peru itself
(Vílchez Jiménez 2013) list only a single sign language for the entire
nation. How could it be that, among so many different groups, only

Brenda Clark is a PhD candidate at University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, currently

completing a dissertation on the sign language used in Sivia, Peru.

Sign Languag e Studi e s Vol . 17 N o. 2 Wi nte r 2017
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  223

a single, nationwide “Peruvian Sign Language” could be announced

with the passage of a law in 2010 (El Congreso de la República)? Are
deaf education and deaf individuals in Peru so uniform that the entire
national community is linguistically homogeneous? It is precisely this
area that the current article seeks to investigate.
Very little has been written on the actual linguistic structure of
­Peruvian Sign Language (LSP). A detailed nationwide survey con-
ducted by the Ministry of Education (Vílchez Jiménez 2013) and a
sociolinguistic profile compiled by SIL (Parks and Parks 2010) thor-
oughly describe Peru’s deaf population and assert that LSP is used
by it. Passing comments in both studies indicate that some groups
of signers have difficulty communicating with other groups. Parks
and Parks classify this simply as “lack of standardization,” and Vílchez
Jiménez implies that groups who do not understand Lima-like signs
do not know a sign language at all. Neither publication attempts to
describe this variation or explain why certain groups do not under-
stand each other.
According to information from several conversations with l­eaders
of Deaf associations (Reynaldo Ramírez and Ricardo Robles, Lima,
July 2014, June 2015; Sully Sandóval, Pucallpa, August 2014; Gori
Gamarra, Ayacucho, July 2015), teachers (Ronald Peña, Lima, July
2014; Tito Vega, Iquitos, August 2014, June 2015), interpreters (Analy
Vidal, Lima, July 2014; Isabel Rey, Lima, July 2014), and government
officials (Dora Villanueva, Ministry of Education, June 2014; Genix
Escudero, Regional Government of Loreto, July 2015), Spanish-LSP
dictionaries are all that exist in terms of description. None of these
discuss grammar, and they contain only direct translations from Span-
ish of materials such as hymns and everyday phrases. A certain form
of signing used in Lima is the basis of all official materials, and there
are no resources for LSP-Spanish translation.
As the field of sign linguistics grows, more and more research is
finding that the frequent declaration of one sign language per country
is simply false, just as it would be for spoken languages (Brito 1984;
Woodward 1991, 2009; Nonaka 2004; Groce 2009). Determination
of the intricacies of relationships between sign languages and the
establishment of typological and historical families (as well as the
methodology to conduct these studies) are still rather in their infancy
224 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

(Woodward 2011). This article attempts to make a contribution to

that end.
The main task here is to determine the degree of variation among
sign language(s) used in Peru. Given the history of deaf education in
Peru, and particularly in Lima, it is not at all unlikely that multiple
groups of signers would have formed and created unique varieties.
Different schools and organizations for deaf persons were established
during the past eighty years by different authorities, and each exerted
its own influence. These institutions have brought in signs from Spain
and the United States, grouped students together to form signing
communities, and helped to establish and spread a standardized Peru-
vian Sign Language (see the section on education).
The initial approach is to collect data for lexicostatistical analysis
from signers in different regions. Because of the limited data avail-
able on the signed languages of the area, the comparative method is
not yet a practical endeavor. However, lexicostatistics has been used
to group underdescribed and unwritten Austronesian and Australian
spoken languages (Woodward 2011), as well as establish relationships
between certain sign languages (Woodward 1991, 1996, 2009; McKee
and Kennedy 2000; Aldersson and McEntee-Atalianis 2008). Before
we can attempt more detailed phonological and grammatical descrip-
tion, we must establish the number of languages to be described and
the approximate dividing lines between them.
After a description of methods and results, this article discusses (1)
the varieties of signing found in Lima, (2) the factors that distinguish
one variety from another, and (3) the relationship of deaf education
and social structure to these varieties. The analysis indicates that, as
expected, the situation is not nearly so simple as the announcement
of a single national Peruvian Sign Language makes it seem.

Data Collection
Data for lexical comparison were taken from interviews and elicitation
sessions recorded in 2014 and 2015 (Clark 2015). Based on suggestions
from signers in Lima on where to find the most unique varieties,
twenty-eight informants in the cities of Lima, Pucallpa, and Ayacucho
were interviewed about their linguistic, educational, and social back-
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  225

F i g ure 1.  Map of data collection locations. The two Deaf associations used for
recruitment and data collection in Lima are the Asociación de Sordos de Lima (ASSOLI)
and the Asociación de Sordos del Perú (ASP). Additional interviews with researchers,
other members of the Deaf community, and government officials were conducted at
Pontificia Universidad del Perú (PUCP), Iglesia Jesucristo, and the Ministry of Education
(Minedu). (Created with Google My Maps.)

ground. These consultants then provided individual signs, phrases, and

descriptions, based on images, questions, and written Spanish words.1
Due to the degree of variation in the city of Lima alone, this
article focuses on only the nine informants from Lima. Participants
were chosen intentionally to vary in age (34–74), gender, and linguistic
background (see table 1 in appendix A) in an attempt to maximize di-
versity. Observations and comments from meetings and conversations
with the Deaf community in Lima, Pucallpa, Iquitos, and Ayacucho
were also taken into account (see figure 1).
The basis for comparison is a modified Swadesh list for sign lan-
guages (Woodward 2011), which contains 100 terms. Eighty terms
were used for this study. Some were removed due to lack of data, and
a few pairs of closely related terms were merged into a single sign
(e.g., instead of separate signs for husband and wife, there is one sign
for spouse). Because the number of items on the Swadesh list is limited
in this way, an extended list (EL) of 165 items (the 80 Swadesh terms
226 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

plus an additional 85 items that expand the semantic domains found

on the Swadesh list) is used for a broader comparison (see table 2 in
appendix A).

The phonetic details of each sign (handshape, orientation, location,
and movement of both hands, along with nonmanual components
such as facial expression) were recorded, along with the demographic
data of the signer and the context in which the sign was used. Each
occurrence of a sign for the same concept was classified as a unique
sign or a variant of a previously recorded sign.
In this article, signs are considered to be variants of one another
(potential cognates) only if they are phonologically related and result
from established phonological processes, such as assimilation or dele-
tion (Rimor, Kegl, Lane, and Schermer 1984; Woodward 1976). For
example, assimilation can be seen in variants of sibling (see image 1).
Some signers use a flat, open nondominant hand and a fist for the
dominant hand (unassimilated form; image 1a); some signers’ fingers
on the nondominant hand bend toward the palm (partial assimilation
to the fist shape of the dominant hand; image 1b); and some signers
perform the sign with two fists (fully assimilated form; image 1c). All
three are considered to be variants of one sign. Similarly, one rendition

Image 1a Image 1b Image 1c

Image 1.  Assimilation in si bli ng. The process of handshape assimilation can be seen in
the nondominant hand, starting with the original form of the sign in 1a (open hand), a
partially assimilated shape in 1b (fingers bent), and a fully assimilated version in 1c (fist).
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  227

Image 2a Image 2b Image 2c

Image 2.  cat. Signs 2a and 2b show the two-handed (original) and the one-handed
(reduced) form of cat. Sign 2c is an additional unrelated sign for cat.

of cat has a two-handed variant (image 2a) and a one-handed variant

in which the nondominant hand has been deleted (image 2b). A third
realization of cat is classified as a separate sign because it is different
in every phonetic category, including facial expression (image 2c).
Some of the recorded signs (25 Swadesh; 75 EL) are lexicalized
compounds, which combine two or more signs or morphemes that are
used independently by other signers. Feathe r, for example, is realized
as bird+pluck+write (image 3a–c), bird+pluck2 2+oblong.
shape (image 3d–f ), p luc k + lea f (image 3g–h), lea f + oblong.
shape (image 3i–j), and so on. Lexicalized compounds differ from
descriptions in that the former have a frozen word order (or mor-
pheme order). Only combinations that are repeated in more than one
context or by more than one signer were recorded as compounds.
The origin of each sign was also recorded, based on compari-
sons with existing dictionaries3 of likely foreign influences: American,
Spanish, British, Portuguese, Brazilian, Bolivian, Argentinean, Chilean,
Ecuadorian, and Colombian sign languages, and spoken Spanish. Signs
that resemble two or more foreign languages are marked as coming
from the most likely influence (the language with which LSP has had
more contact according to the percentages of similarity presented later
and the history of deaf education in Peru). For example, signs that are
similar to both a Spanish and a British sign are considered to be of
Spanish origin, and signs that appear in both Brazilian and Portuguese
sign languages are considered to be Brazilian. Additionally, signs are
not considered to be of foreign origin if many unrelated languages use
a similar, iconic sign for that meaning, as is true of bi rd (image 4a),
Image 3a Image 3b

Image 3c Image 3d

Image 3e

Image 3.  f eath e r (compound signs).

Image 3f Image 3g

Image 3h Image 3i

Image 3j

Image 3.  (continued)

230 | Sign Lang uag e Studi e s

Image 4a Image 4b

Image 4c

Image 4.  Iconic signs.

rain (image 4b), and narrow (image 4c). Signs in this category are
determined by my own cross-linguistic comparisons and comments
in other lexicostatistical work (cf. Woodward 1991).

Language and Dialect Classification
With an average of about two signs per list item, 193 signs were
recorded for the 80 Swadesh terms (362 signs for the extended list).
Note that “signs” here refers to entirely unique signs (i.e., those that
are not phonologically related and cannot be classified as variants of
one another or the result of historical changes). In all, 533 variants
were recorded, giving an average of 6.7 variants per term, or 2.8 vari-
ants per sign. These numbers alone indicate a varied lexicon, be it the
use of synonyms by the same signers or the use of different language
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  231

varieties by different signers.To tease out the factors influencing varia-

tion and to identify groups of similarity, each signer was compared
to every other signer. The resulting numbers show the percentage of
items on the list for which the two signers share at least one sign. This
method aims to mimic a mutual intelligibility test by recording the
percentage of basic terms a given pair would be able to successfully
communicate or understand.
In lexicostatistical comparisons, varieties that share more than 80
percent of their core vocabulary are classified as dialects of the same
language. Distinct related languages should share 36–80 percent, lan-
guages in related families 12–36 percent, and unrelated languages less
than 12 percent (Crowley 1992). Based on these guidelines, it is im-
mediately apparent that more than one language exists in Lima, as
percentages of shared signs range from 56 to 100. Tables 3a and 3b (in
appendix A) show two clearly divided groups: the two oldest signers
(F 74 1 and F 74 2) and the four younger signers (M 53, F 41, M 38,
and F 34). Note that within both of these groups, each pair shares well
over 80 percent of basic vocabulary, meaning that they fall into the
typical range for dialects of the same language (cf. McKee and Ken-
nedy 2000, in which a shared vocabulary range of 79–87 percent is
used to classify British, Australian, and New Zealand sign languages as
dialects of the same language). Between groups, however, signers share
only 56–75 percent of their vocabulary, a powerful indication that they
are using two separate languages (cf. Aldersson and McEntee-Atalianis
2008, who use 63 percent similarity between Icelandic and Danish
sign languages to classify them as related, but distinct, languages). This
trend is even stronger for the extended list, with no more than 68
percent shared for any intergroup pair. Due to historical reasons dis-
cussed later (see the section on education), the older group is referred
to as Inmaculada Sign Language (LSIn), and the younger group as
Peruvian Sign Language (LSP).
The data for the three remaining signers are more complex. First
of all, table 4 (in appendix A) shows that these signers do share a lan-
guage, with 88–100 percent similarity to each other.Their relationship
to Inmaculada and Peruvian Sign Language, however, is variable.Tables
5 and 6 (in appendix A) show that, though certain pairs share more
232 | Sign Lang uag e Studi e s

than 80 percent of their vocabulary, these three signers are not con-
sistently in the dialect range with either of the other groups. (Again,
the extended list shows the same pattern.)
None of these “middle-group” signers shares more than 80 percent
of basic vocabulary with more than half of the signers of LSIn (table 5)
or LSP (table 6). For example, signers M 74 and F 47 of the middle
group pattern closely with F 74 2 of the LSIn group, yet not with
F 74 1. Similarly, signers F 64 and F 47 share more than 80 percent
with only two of the four LSP signers.
These data establish that three groups of signers exist in Lima.
Signers within each group share the same language, and all three
groups are clearly related. However, they are not three dialects of the
same language, nor are they three separate languages. Signers in Lima
are using three varieties that are derived from two languages.
One possible explanation is that the signers in the middle group
are simply bilingual and are giving signs from both languages (see the
section on the Lima continuum). These signers could also be using
a contact variety, created via the interaction between LSIn and LSP
(see the section on the evidence of creolization), or the three varieties
could be part of a dialect chain (Swadesh 1959; Quackenbush 1968;
Ross 1988; Lynch, Ross, and Crowley 2002), where two distinct lan-
guages (LSIn and LSP) are linked through a third, intermediate variety
(the middle group, or MG).
The data are a good fit for the dialect chain hypothesis. All nine
signers can be connected in a linear way, from the most distinct LSIn
signers to the most distinct LSP signers, with more than 80 percent
similarity between each pair (indicated along the bottom of figure 2).
However, nonconsecutive pairs (indicated along the top of figure 2)
show that the order of each “link” is vital.
Figure 3 shows the overall relationship among the three variet-
ies. Several signers in LSIn and in LSP are within the dialect range
(80–100 percent), and at least one signer is in the middle group (hence
the possibility of the chain in figure 2). However, there are no pairs
between LSIn and LSP signers who can be said to share the same
language according to lexicostatistical conventions. Numbers in both
visualizations are comparable to those given by Quackenbush (1968)
for the Sonsorol-Truk dialect chain.
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  233

F ig ure 2.  Dialect chain between individual signers.

Sign Distribution
Turning now to the distribution of the 193 recorded Swadesh signs,
figure 4 shows the total number of signs recorded from each language
or dialect, the number of signs that overlap different groups, and the
number of signs that are unique to each variety. While LSIn has about
one sign per Swadesh term (1.1), the middle group and LSP are more

Figure 3.  Dialect chain showing ranges of shared core vocabulary within and between
234 | Sign Lang uag e Studi e s

Figure 4.  Distribution of Swadesh signs. Each bar shows the number of signs recorded
from each group which are unique or overlap with signs from another group (Swadesh
terms only). Percentages were calculated from the total recorded signs for that group,
given below each bar. Note that the y-axis reaches over 100 percent due to the existence
of multiple signs per lexical item.

varied, with an average of 1.7 and 1.6 signs per term, respectively. As
expected, a number of signs are unique to each variety.
These numbers are in line with the results presented earlier. Forty-
six percent of signs (88 out of 193) are unique to one variety. More
total signs, as well as a higher percentage of unique signs, were record-
ed from LSP users and the middle group, which speaks to the wider
spread and diversification of these varieties (see the later discussion).
The data also support the dialect chain concept by showing that
both languages (LSIn and LSP) have more in common with the mid-
dle group (67–80 signs) than with each other (54 signs). Furthermore,
signs that are shared between LSIn and LSP are likely to be present
in the middle group as well. Excluding the 48 signs that are shared by
all varieties, 6 remain that are found in LSP and LSIn alone, but the
middle group shares 19 signs only with LSIn and 32 signs only with
LSP. Again, these same trends are present for the extended list, with
0–6 percent (2 percent average) difference for any category.
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  235

Foreign Influence
One explanation for the differences between LSP and LSIn may be
foreign influence, either drawing varieties apart or causing them to
converge. Of the languages checked, American Sign Language (ASL)
and Spanish Sign Language (LSE) contribute the majority of foreign
signs (up to 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively). A small number
(up to 6 percent) of signs from any signer are taken from or influenced
by spoken Spanish.4 Table 7a (in appendix A) shows the percentages
of signs on the Swadesh list from each of these origins for users from
each group.
A clear pattern is discernible in the relationship between native
Peruvian signs and ASL; the more vocabulary from one, the less vo-
cabulary from the other. As is perhaps predictable from the age of
users and the increasingly global spread of lingua francas such as ASL
(Padden 2010; Woodward 1996, 2009; McKee and Kennedy 2000),
LSIn, the older language, has the most native signs and the fewest signs
from ASL. Table 7b (in appendix A) shows an overall continuum be-
tween groups, gradually gaining ASL influence from LSIn, through the
middle group, to LSP. Differences within each group will be discussed
later in the section on the characteristics of each variety.
Each group shows a relatively equal portion of signs from LSE and
Spanish, though some exceptions exist. For example, F 47 and M 38
have lower percentages of LSE signs, seemingly corresponding to a
slightly higher percentage of influence from spoken Spanish.The same
general trends, with higher percentages of foreign signs, are present in
the EL data (see table 7b).

The final comparisons show which signs are common to each group
and, conversely, which signs are unique. Table 8 (in appendix A) shows
the distribution of lexemes in Lima according to their origin.The total
proportion of shared signs leaves only 18 percent of Swadesh items (25
percent EL) with no overlap at all. This means that for 75–82 percent
of list items, at least one user from each group provided a similar sign
at some point. The real distinction, then, lies in the popularity of each
sign. When only the most frequent sign in each group is considered,
236 | Sign Lang uag e Studi e s

just 63 percent of the lexemes (59 percent EL) match across all three
groups. These numbers indicate a degree of variation between users
that is consistent with the notion of a dialect continuum rather than
an absolute division between each variety (see the section on clas-
sification). This type of result is also expected based on continued
contact between groups.
It is useful to compare the percentages in table 8 with those in
table 7a, which gives the overall percentages of signs from each place
of origin. If signs of any origin are equally likely to be shared, we
would expect to find about 62 percent native signs, 21 percent ASL
signs, 9 percent LSE signs, and less than 5 percent of any other origin.
None of the actual numbers are drastically different from these aver-
ages, but native signs run slightly high, whereas ASL signs run slightly
low (see the section on the characteristics of each variety). Extended-
list data (59 percent native, 20 percent ASL, and 16 percent LSE) are
more in line with these numbers.
However, even if origin is not a strong predictor of which signs
are shared, a difference exists between signs that are unique to each
group. The vast majority of unique LSIn and middle-group signs are
native in origin (80 percent and 77 percent, respectively), with only
8–10 percent of signs from ASL. Unique LSP signs, on the other hand,
are only 59 percent native and much more likely to be from ASL (32
percent). Extended list data varies by up to only 5 percent.

The Lima Continuum.  The data presented in the earlier section on
language and dialect classification identifies three distinct groups of
signers in Lima, divided mainly by age. Lexicostatistics easily separates
two groups, approximately the oldest signers (F 74 1 and F 74 2) and
the youngest signers (M 53, F 41, M 38, and F 34), with 87–97 percent
shared core vocabulary within each group and only 56–75 percent
shared vocabulary between any cross-group pair. These groups are
classified as the two related but mutually unintelligible languages,
Inmaculada Sign Language (LSIn) and Peruvian Sign Language (LSP).
The three remaining signers (M 74, F 64, and F 47) not only fit
into the spectrum between these two languages but also form a third
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  237

group. Although they have more in common with both LSP and LSIn
(68–86 percent) than LSP and LSIn signers share with each other
(56–75 percent), signers in this middle group are more similar to each
other (88–100 percent). This range is more in line with the intragroup
percentages for LSP and LSIn signers (87–97 percent). Apparently,
these signers are not simply bilingual but also using a nuanced blended
language, perhaps with some characteristics of a creole (see the later
section on the evidence of creolization).
Numbers of signs given by each signer support this idea. Signers
in the middle of the spectrum are using slightly more signs, which is
what makes it possible for them to communicate with both sides but
is not sufficient to cover two entire languages. (This could be a limit
of the methodology, as signers were simply asked how to sign each
item rather than instructed to give every sign they knew. However,
it is a correlation that needs to be investigated further.) Table 9 (in
appendix A) shows the small arc from the most typical LSIn signers
at approximately 1.2 signs per lexical item, through the most “in-
between” signers at closer to 1.3 or 1.4, and back down to typical
LSP signers at around 1.2. A difference of 0.2 signs per term is not
significant, however, and does not provide evidence that MG signers
are bilingual.

Evidence of Creolization.  Many definitions of creoles focus on history

more than structure (Winford 2003), and the prototypical planta-
tion story does not apply here. However, features like use as a native
language and innovations that do not occur in the source languages
have also been used to differentiate creoles from pidgins and mixed
languages (Winford 2003; Holm 2000). It has also been suggested that
sign languages undergo continuous creolization from generation to
generation (Fischer 1978, 1996; Newport 1982). The use of the term
“creole” here is not a declaration of an absolute classification but
simply a recognition of these features in a complex language contact
situation that merits further exploration.
As for the lexical evidence in this case, there are a number of
terms (9 on the Swadesh list) for which the middle group signers,
M 74, F 47, and F 63 (or a subset), use at least one unique sign:5 die,
dog, feather, grease, man, sibling, wind, woman, and young. Some of these
238 | Sign Lang uag e Studi e s

are possible loans from ASL (grease) or LSE (sibling, wind, and woman),
some are native in origin (die, dog, feather, man, and woman), and others
are compounds or blends (dog, feather, and young). Sometimes signers
describe these terms as the “old form,” but none of them are used by
the purely LSIn signers. For most of these items, LSIn signers use a
sign that is also frequently used in LSP.
Table 10 (in appendix A) and image 8 show each of the simple
signs and a comparison to what other signers use, but the compounds
and blends merit elaboration. While the possibility of coincidental
similarity cannot be ruled out entirely, my cross-linguistic comparisons
indicate that the form of the following three lexemes (dog, feather, and
young) is not particularly predictable across sign languages. Therefore,
due to structural similarities and the distribution of each morpheme
among the signers, these examples provide preliminary support for
linguistic mixing. The middle-group variety appears to have inherited
signs from both LSIn and LSP and created some new material.
The compound for dog resembles the first half of the ASL sign
used in LSP (an open dominant hand pats the thigh; images 5a and
5c), combined with a novel sign (index finger extended, the domi-
nant hand waves right to left; image 5d). Many LSP users use the
ASL sign (images 5a–b), and the second sign (image 5d) is only used
by the middle group. This second, innovated morpheme is also used
independently by these signers (see table 10).6
Feather is one of the most varied items on the list, with four in-
dividual signs and seven compounds. There is already one unique
individual sign in table 10 from one of the middle-group signers. The
other two signers use the same compound, bird+pluck+oblong.
shape. Not only are the combination and the order unique, but each
morpheme also seems to have a different affiliation. The bi rd mor-
pheme (image 6a) is the one used in the LSIn compounds for feather
(cf. image 6d) and is rarely used among LSP signers as part of this
sign (never in Lima). In addition, p luc k (image 6b), located at the
hip, is either an innovation, as it is not used by any other signers in
Lima, or a modified form of the popular pluc k morpheme seen in
image 6e. The morpheme relating to shape, maybe a classifier (image
6c), was shown by another signer in Lima (and several signers in other
cities) as part of a feather compound (cf. image 6f ). It was also used by
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  239

Image 5a Image 5b

Image 5c Image 5d

Image 5.  dog (compound signs).

three of the four LSP signers in Lima in various signs for leaf. Thus
the compound is equal parts LSIn, LSP, and innovation.
Even more intriguing is the novel sign for young (images 7c and
7d), which appears to be a phonetic blend of an ASL sign (image 7a)
used in LSP with an LSE sign (image 7b). The ASL sign is used by
one LSP signer in Lima and is popular in other cities, and the LSE
sign is used by all groups in Lima.
Table 11 (in appendix A) shows the phonetic features of all three
signs. Every feature of the blended sign exactly corresponds to one
of the contributing signs (marked in bold for LSP/ASL or italics for
240 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

Image 6a Image 6b

Image 6c Image 6d

Image 6e Image 6f

Image 6.  f eath e r (middle-group compound).

Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  241

Image 7a Image 7b

Image 7c Image 7d

Image 7.  young (blended sign).

LSIn/LSE). The shape and symmetry of the blend match those of

typical LSP signers, who use the ASL sign, while orientation, location,
and movement are copied from the LSE sign, which is more closely
associated with LSIn. The likelihood of coincidental shift to the more
marked (Battison, Markowicz, and Woodward 1975) ASL shape is low,
and for a sign produced near the face to gain an additional hand
would violate typical sign language change (Battison 1974; Woodward
1976; Rimor et al. 1984). Therefore, it is reasonable to classify this sign
as a true blend of LSIn and LSP.
With evidence of contributions from four languages (LSIn, LSP,
ASL, and LSE), novel signs, and at least one bona fide blend, we have
242 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

reason to suspect creolization. In a typical creole, the majority of

lexical items come from the superstrate, and a small number from the
substrate and adstrates (Holm 2000). The relationship here is complex
since LSP and LSIn are related, and the typical idea of the more presti-
gious language as the superstrate is difficult to map onto this situation,
but a comparison of shared vocabulary reveals more similarity to LSIn
(70–84 percent). This could be another sliver of support for the creole
argument, but the full debate will be left for another day. Though
ASL and the now standardized LSP are considered prestigious today,
the status of the four languages in Lima during the latter half of the
twentieth century, when these varieties began to form, is unknown.
Further investigation of phonological, morphological, and syntactic
structure may also prove enlightening (see Fischer 1978 and Kegl 2008
for a discussion of creolization in sign languages).

Characteristics of Each Variety

Looking at the specific differences between LSP and LSIn, we find
two basic trends: LSP users provided a larger number of signs, and
LSP signs are more likely to be from diverse origins. Neither of these
is surprising, given the wider spread of LSP over the generations, not
to mention the fact that more LSP users were recorded in this study.
In addition, 62 percent of all recorded (Swadesh) signs are native
in origin, and this proportion is actually larger among shared signs
(74 percent). Conversely, ASL signs (the most common foreign influ-
ence) are more frequent overall (21 percent) than in shared signs (13
percent). In the shared signs, signs of other origins occur at the same
rate as they do in the overall data (see the section on foreign influ-
ence). Thus, the varieties are more likely to share native than foreign
signs, and their historical relationship appears to be strong.
Although these numbers are not dramatically disproportionate,
signs that are unique to each variety have a clearer pattern (see table
8). Most of the unique LSIn signs (80 percent) and middle-group
signs (77 percent) are native, while unique LSP signs are likely to be
native (59 percent) or cognate with ASL (32 percent). Furthermore,
ASL is a frequent powerful influence on other sign languages, such
as Modern Standard Thai Sign Language (Woodward 1996), New
Costa Rican Sign Language (Woodward 1991), Creole Hawaii Sign
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  243

Language (Clark et al. 2015), Malian Sign Language (Nyst 2015), and
several others, so it is reasonable to suspect that the extent of bor-
rowing could be the main difference between an older (LSIn) and a
younger language (LSP). If this were true, signs unique to LSP would
be mostly ASL cognates.
The numbers speak to the overall trend of increased ASL influence
in the younger language, but, in reality, a large portion (well over half )
of the unique signs from both languages (and all three varieties) are
native in origin. This reinforces the idea that a significant portion of
LSP vocabulary is independently native to the area and that, with or
without ASL, there would be two sign languages in Lima. In other
words, this is not the typical situation of divergence through contact
with a prestigious language; the distinction between LSIn and LSP
exists because distinct groups of signers exist in Lima.
Individual variation is also a factor here. Taking another look at
table 7a, we see that F 64 uses fewer ASL signs than her peers, and M
38 uses more. Also, F 47 uses fewer LSE signs and more from spoken
Spanish. These inconsistencies are likely related to the educational
background and social affiliation of these signers (see the following

Social Factors
The existence of more than one sign language in Lima naturally
follows from the history of deaf education in the city, and the three
groups identified earlier are related by the signers’ educational back-
ground, linguistic experience, and social affiliation.

Education.  The history of deaf education in Peru can contribute a

lot to understanding these findings. Starting in the year 1939 (Sense
Internacional Perú 2010), CEBE La Inmaculada de Barranco, a school
for deaf children and blind children run by Spanish nuns, was both the
main resource for deaf children in Lima and (to my knowledge) the
only school for deaf children in the country at the time. The two old-
est signers (74 years of age) recorded in Lima attended this school and
use the purest form of Inmaculada Sign Language. The middle group
(74, 64, and 47 years of age) attended mainstream schools in which
they were not allowed to sign. They report learning to sign through
244 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

friends and at the Asociación de Sordos del Perú (Deaf ­Association

of Peru, ASP).
The association began to form as the oldest interviewees were
about to finish school in 1958, and its members quickly created a dic-
tionary of signs, referred to as “Peruvian Sign Language,” with Spanish
translations (Asociación de Sordos del Perú ca. 1958). This dictionary
actually includes a mixture of LSIn and LSP signs, along with some
ASL and LSE loans. Entries such as heavy, family, and fat show the LSIn
form, and others (such as dry, young, and sweet) show an LSE form
that is used in LSIn but not in LSP. Signs for cat, dog, when, and apple
are ASL loans that are used in LSP only. The rapid compilation of a
dictionary with so many non-LSIn signs indicates that some form
of LSP was being used outside of CEBE La Inmaculada before the
formation of the national Deaf association.
The fingerspelled alphabet in this dictionary is almost entirely ASL,
with the exception of p, u, and an added ñ. This one-handed system
is also what most LSP users use. However, LSIn users use two-handed
fingerspellings for certain letters (c h , g, ñ, s, t, x, y, and z ) and
different one-handed fingerspellings for d, e, i , and l l .7 Though
they do not appear in official dictionaries, some of these two-handed
fingerspellings (g, i , s, and t ) are used for distance or performance
among younger signers.
The dictionary represents one stage in the transition from the use
of both languages to only LSP in Lima, a process that can also be seen
in the continuum of signers from the oldest signers, who attended
Inmaculada and use the purest form of LSIn, through the signers who
use a certain degree of both, down to the younger generations, who
use exclusively LSP (see the section on classification).
By 1970, when a new school for deaf children run by Efata Min-
istries opened (Ministerios Efata n.d.), the shift had progressed to the
point that students and teachers used a standardized LSP. Students
came (and still come) to Efata from all over the country and have
acted as mentors and teachers upon returning to their communities;
hence this variety (LSP) has spread outside of Lima.
Another school, Colegio Ludwig van Beethoven, opened in 2010
(Susano Chavez 2015). Unfortunately, none of its attendees were able
to participate in this study, but it will be interesting to monitor the
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  245

effect of this school on the next generation. Other cities are begin-
ning to create local schools for deaf students and tutoring programs
as well, but a stubborn policy of inclusion for all students (Chacón
Velásquez 2007) means that most deaf children in Peru are forced
into mainstream education with no interpretation and little, if any,
exposure to sign language (Samanez Cornejo 2013). Associations in
major cities provide some resources, but this system usually means a
late start at best.
In more rural areas, an occasional visit from a member of an as-
sociation may be the extent of LSP exposure. The one benefit of this
situation is that these areas are full of potential for the development
of village sign languages. In fact, there appears to be just such a com-
munity in a town called Sivia, located in a valley near Ayacucho. No
doubt several more exist in the various pockets of Peru’s diverse land-
scape, the description of which is a topic for future research.

Intragroup Variation.  Though the three groups have been firmly es-
tablished at this point, a reasonable amount of variation still occurs
among the signers in each.The explanation of these smaller differences
is probably related to social ties, examples of which are described later.
A potential for influence from other consultants exists as well, but this
is not observed. Recording sessions involve from one to four consul-
tants, an interviewer (the author), and at least one additional person
serving as an interpreter. Some sessions include signers who all use the
same variety, and others are mixed. The degree of interaction between
consultants is also variable due to the lexical elicitation framework,
which allows discussion or simple word-to-sign translations.
The two LSIn signers are quite similar to each other (87 percent
shared core vocabulary), but F 74 1 is more similar to signers in other
groups (see tables 3 and 5a). There are fewer recorded lexical items
for F 74 1, so perhaps the extra signs from F 74 2 serve to further
distinguish her from LSP signers. This is more likely due, however, to
the influence of social affiliation. Though both attended Inmaculada
and grew up together, F 74 1 may have more current ties to the as-
sociation or to younger signers in general.
The continuum from LSIn to LSP essentially follows the de-
creasing age of the signers, with one major exception: a 47-year-old
246 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

woman. After a strictly oral education, this signer began learning the
language from older signers (now over 60 years of age), and she still
considers members of this group to be some of her closest friends in
the Deaf community. It is also telling of her oralist education and late
start with signing that F 47 uses a larger percentage of signs influenced
by Spanish. Both of the other signers in the middle group report a
similar background (i.e., an oralist education and learning to sign
through the association). It may also be noted that M 74 and F 64,
with 100 percent in common, are a long-married couple.
In addition, the LSP group is not strictly organized by age. Accord-
ing to table 7a, regarding the use of native and ASL signs, the con-
tinuum from middle-group signers to the purest LSP signers is F 41,
M 53, F 34, and then M 38. According to table 9, by the number of
signs per Swadesh term, the order is M 38, F 41, F 34, and then M 53.
Table 5, which shows the percentages of vocabulary shared between
pairs, suggests a different order, depending on the exact pair. Evidently,
these four LSP signers are not a homogeneous group, and the factors
used to distinguish the three varieties from one another do not align
to place these individuals neatly on a continuum.
M 38 and M 53 are in different subgroups as leaders in two differ-
ent Deaf associations in Lima. The latter signer, M 53, is affiliated with
the national association, which in its early years sought to promote the
spread of one specific variety of signing (what is now LSP) all over the
country. M 53 learned to sign through this association and became a
leader as a representative of this standard. The other two LSP signers
were found through this same association and share more in common
with him (93–97 percent).
M 38, on the other hand, learned to sign through, and is now in
charge of, a younger citywide organization with more liberal ideas
about what to include in “Peruvian Sign Language.” He often gives a
pair of signs, one from LSP and one from ASL for example, with no
preference for one or the other.The percentages of similarity between
this signer and the other three in the LSP group are slightly lower
(89–91 percent).
F 34 is also distinguishable because, as a member of the young-
est generation, she had an opportunity to start signing through the
association at an earlier age. She shares a great deal with the middle-
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  247

group signers (up to 86 percent) but is also the signer who is the most
distinct from LSIn (56–63 percent).

According to the lexical data presented here, signers in Lima form a
continuum from Inmaculada Sign Language, through an intermediate
variety, to the younger and more widespread Peruvian Sign Language.
The two ends of this spectrum are related but separate languages. In-
fluence from ASL is apparently increasing with time, though neither
language shows enough influence to fit into the ASL/French Sign
Language family. Consistency, use as an L1, and innovations indicate
that signers in the middle of the continuum may be using a contact
language. Factors such as the history of education and Deaf organi-
zations in Lima, as well as social relationships, help explain how this
linguistic landscape, including individual variation, developed.

The original intent of this study was to test the hypothesis that sign
languages in Peru vary by region. From a spoken-language perspective,
region is often one of the most important factors influencing varia-
tion, especially in a country such as Peru, whose cities exhibit great
diversity in culture and landscape. However, the data show that age,
educational background, and social affiliation are significant factors
influencing variation among Lima’s signing community. These are so
influential, in fact, that two distinct sign languages can be identified
in Lima alone: Inmaculada Sign Language, used by the oldest gen-
eration, and Peruvian Sign Language, found among younger signers.
Moreover, evidence of creolization exists among signers in the middle
of this dichotomy. These findings reinforce ideas presented in other
studies (Fischer 1978; Woodward 1973; Senghas 2003; Schembri and
Johnston 2013; Bickford, Albert, Lewis, and Simons 2013) about the
way in which sign languages are transmitted between generations and
the effect of this process on the languages themselves.

I would like to express my gratitude to all of the consultants who
provided the data for this study, as well as the Asociación de Sordos del
248 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

Perú and the Asociación de Sordos de Lima, which were invaluable

in recruiting participants and introducing me to the signing commu-
nity. I would also like to thank Tito Vega Mori, Sara Goico, and the
Ministerio de Educación del Perú for providing information about
the educational system. For many rounds of advice on the initial re-
search, presentation, and analysis, I am grateful to James Woodward,
as well as to Katie Drager, Victoria Anderson, and Patricia Donegan
for help with the writing process. Finally, I would like to thank the
Bilinski Educational Foundation for providing the funding that made
this research possible.

ASL American Sign Language
BSL British Sign Language
EL extended list of terms
LSE Spanish Sign Language (Lengua de Señas Española)
LSIn Inmaculada Sign Language (Lengua de Señas Inmaculada)
LSP Peruvian Sign Language (Lengua de Señas Peruana)
MG middle group (signers who do not fit into LSIn or LSP)

1.  Interviews were conducted in a combination of Spanish and Peruvian
Sign Language, with some translation provided by interpreters Isabel Rey
and Analy Vidal Perez.
2.  The morpheme p luc k 2 is different from p luc k but has the same
3.  Lexical comparisons are based on signs from Lapiak 2015; Semantos
2013a, 2013b; Mitchell 2015; European Sign Language Center 2012; Instituto
Nacional de Educação de Surdos 2008; Consejo Nacional de Igualidad de
Discapacidades n.d.; Departamento de Educación Diferencial n.d.; Manos
Que Hablan 2015; Sobre Todo Personas n.d.; Instituto Nacional para Sordos
2006; Ministerio de Educación 2010; and Asociación de Sordos del Perú
ca. 1958.
4.  Signs that use the handshape of the first letter of the fingerspelled
Spanish word with a simple shake are considered to be cognate with Spanish.
5. This number eliminates unique middle-group signs that were also
recorded outside of Lima.
6.  A similar compound, using the first half of the ASL sign and a reduced
version of the Peruvian sign used frequently in LSIn (see table 10), was found
in another city.
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  249

7.  ch and ll are lost in the new fingerspelling system, likely correspond-
ing with the decision to treat these clusters as individual letters in the Spanish
alphabet (Real Academia Española 2015).
8.  Percentages based on list items are higher due to overlap from con-
cepts with more than one sign. Note that more than one variant is often
given by a single signer. Therefore, this version may give a more accurate
picture of how the language is being used.

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Appendix A.  Tables

Table 1. Signers
Gender Age Education/Linguistic Background Language
female 74 Colegio Inmaculada de Barranco LSIn
female 74 Colegio Inmaculada de Barranco LSIn
male 74 oral education; learned to sign through Middle Group
a Deaf association and a few friends at
female 64 mixed education; learned some signs be- Middle Group
ginning at age 9
male 53 oral education; learned to sign through a LSP
Deaf association, beginning at age 15
female 47 oral education; learned to sign through Middle Group
friends and a Deaf association
female 41 oral education; learned to sign through a LSP
Deaf association, beginning at age 25
male 38 oral education; learned to sign through LSP
a friend and various groups, beginning
around age 22
female 34 mixed education (oral and using LSP at a LSP
Deaf association)

Table 2 . Word Lists

Swadesh Extended
all not age lettuce
animal old angry lie down
bad other apple light
bird person avocado like
black pig banana mango
blood play bathroom milk
blue rain bee minute
cat red birthday month
child, offspring river bone morning
child salt bread mosquito
cold sea builder noodles
day short butter nothing
254 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

Table 2 . (continued )
Swadesh Extended
die sibling cake oil
dog sit carpenter onion
dry snake carrot orange
dust, dirt snow cheese pea
egg spouse chicken peach
father stand clean pepper
feather star cleaning person pineapple
fire stone coconut please
fish sun coffee potato
flower tail cookie pumpkin
good thin corn rat
grass tree couple rice
grease warm cousin sheep
green water cow soldier
heavy wet cry spider
how when dirty strawberry
hunt, look for where doctor/nurse street
ice white family sweet
leaf who food tea
live wind friend thank you
man woman fruit today
meat wood good (food) tomato
moon work grandparent/child tomorrow
mother world grape vegetable
mountain worm horse wait
name year hour watermelon
name sign yellow house week
night young how many what
interpret(er) why
juice yes
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  255

Table 3 a .  Percentage of Lexemes Shared among Individuals in Lima

F 74 1 F 74 2 M 53 F 41 M 38
F 74 1 X X X X X
F 74 2 87% X X X X
M 53 71% 65% X X X
F 41 75% 62% 97% X X
M 38 74% 68% 91% 89% X
F 34 63% 56% 93% 94% 89%
These numbers represent the percentage of terms on the Swadesh list for which a
pair of signers share at least one sign. Signers are identified by gender and age. Pairs
with more than 80 percent similarity (dialects of the same language) are indicated
in dark gray, pairs with 70 percent to 80 percent in light gray, and pairs with under
70 percent (certainly separate languages) in white.

Table 3 b. Two Languages in Lima

F 74 1 F 74 2 M 53 F 41 M 38
(LSIn) (LSIn) (LSP) (LSP) (LSP)
F 74 1 (LSIn) X X X X X
F 74 2 (LSIn) 87% X X X X
M 53 (LSP) — — X X X
F 41 (LSP) — — 97% X X
M 38 (LSP) — — 91% 89% X
F 34 (LSP) — — 93% 94% 89%
These numbers represent the percentage of terms on the Swadesh list for which a
pair of signers share at least one sign. Signers are identified by gender and age. Only
percentages over 80 percent (pairs that use dialects of the same language) are shown.

Table 4.  Percentages of Lexemes Shared among the Three

Remaining Signers
M 74 F 64
M 74 X X
F 64 100% X
F 47  88% 88%
These numbers represent the percentage of terms on the
Swadesh list for which a pair of signers share at least one sign.
Signers are identified by gender and age. Pairs with greater than
80 percent similarity are indicated in dark gray.
256 | Sign Lang uag e Studi e s

Table 5.  Percentages of Lexemes Shared among LSIn Signers and the Third Group
M 74 F 64 F 47
F 74 1 (LSIn) 71% 70% 77%
F 74 2 (LSIn) 84% 78% 84%
These numbers represent the percentage of terms on the Swadesh list for which a
pair of signers share at least one sign. Signers are identified by gender and age. Pairs
with more than 80 percent similarity are indicated in dark gray, and pairs with 70
percent to 80 percent in light gray.

Table 6.  Percentages of Lexemes Shared among LSP signers and the Third Group
M 74 F 64 F 47
M 53 (LSP) 71% 80% 75%
F 41 (LSP) 74% 85% 72%
M 38 (LSP) 70% 78% 82%
F 34 (LSP) 68% 86% 81%
These numbers represent the percentage of terms on the Swadesh list for which a
pair of signers share at least one sign. Signers are identified by gender and age. Pairs
with more than 80 percent similarity are indicated in dark gray, pairs with 70–80
percent in light gray, and pairs with less than 70 percent similarity in white.

Table 7 a .  Origin of Swadesh Signs

Native ASL LSE Spanish
F 74 1 66 15  7 3
F 74 2 71 16  9 0
LSIn Average 69 16  8 2
M 74 62 22 12 3
F 64 62 16  8 2
F 47 67 23  2 5
MG Average 64 20  7 3
M 53 62 19 12 1
F 41 64 20 12 0
M 38 48 30  7 5
F 34 56 24 11 2
LSP Average 58 23 11 2
  Group Average 62 21  9 2
These are the percentages of individual signs from each origin, regardless of meaning.8
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  257

Table 7 b.  Origin of All Signs (EL)

Native ASL LSE Spanish
F 74 1 54 19 12 2
F 74 2 62 14 13 1
LSIn 58 17 13 2
M 74 56 26 17 2
F 64 57 17 13 2
F 47 56 23  9 4
Middle Group 56 22 13 3
M 53 54 23 12 1
F 41 53 25 13 1
M 38 43 30 11 3
F 34 56 28 10 1
LSP 52 27 12 2
 Overall 55 23 12 2
These are the percentages of individual signs from each origin, regardless of meaning.

Table 8 .  Origin of Signs for Swadesh Terms in Each Group

Shared Unique to Unique to Unique to
Shared Majority LSIn MG LSP
native 74% 71% 80% 77% 59%
ASL 13% 14% 10%  8% 32%
LSE  7%  6% 10% 15%  9%
BSL  4%  6% 0 0 0
Spanish  2%  3% 0 0 0
  All Signs 82% 63% 18% 46% 39%
Percentages for each origin are calculated using the total number of list items in
each category for which there is data from all three groups (56 total). There is some
overlap where signs tie for the majority and where more than one sign is used in
both groups (104 total signs).
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Table 9 .  Average Number of Signs per Swadesh Term for Signers in Lima
# Swadesh Signs per
# Signs Terms Term Language
F 74 1 56 47 1.19 LSIn
F 74 2 65 53 1.22 LSIn
M 74 70 55 1.27 LSIn/LSP
F 47 91 69 1.32 creole?
F 64 80 58 1.38 creole?
M 38 88 68 1.29 LSP/LSIn
F 41 78 64 1.22 LSP
F 34 62 51 1.22 LSP
M 53 72 61 1.18 LSP
Shading indicates the degree of mixing between LSIn and LSP.

Table 10.  Comparison of Unique Middle-Group Signs with LSIn and LSP
LSIn Unique LSP
di e [Image 10-1] [Image 10-2] [Image 10-3]
dog [Image 10-4] [Image 10-5] [Image 10-6a]
[Image 10-6b]
f eath e r [Image 10-7a] [Image 10-8] [Image 10-9a]
[Image 10-7b] see also image 6 [Image 10-9b]
[Image 10-7c] (compound containing fre-
(compound) quently used morphemes)
g rease image unavailable [Image 10-10] [Image 10-11]
man [Image 10-12] [Image 10-13] [Image 10-14]
si bl i ng [Image 10-15] [Image 10-16] [Image 10-17]
w i nd [Image 10-18] [Image 10-19] [Image 10-20]
woman [Image 10-21] [Image 10-22] [Image 10-23]
see also image 8
Table 11.  Phonetic Features of the Three Different Signs for Young
Hands Handshape Orientation Location Movement
LSE (LSIn) 1 all fingers extended, palms inward, fingers zero space, near head shake at wrist, forward
contact with the upward and toward body
blend 2 index and pinky palms inward, fingers zero space, near head shake at wrist, forward
extended upward and toward body
ASL (LSP) 2 index and pinky palms toward body, pinkies make contact arc up and out from
extended fingers inward with chest chest
260 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

Appendix B.  Additional Images

Image 8a Image 8b

Image 8c Image 8d

Image 8e Image 8f

Image 8. Three more middle-group signs for woman. Images 8b–c show the movement
of a single sign. Images 8d–f show a compound (d–e, then f ).
Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  261

Image 10-1 Image 10-2 Image 10-3

Image 10-4 Image 10-5

Image 10-6a Image 10-6b

262 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

Image 10-7a Image 10-7b Image 10-7c

Image 10-8

Image 10-9a Image 10-9b

Sign Language Varieties in Lima, Peru  |  263

Image 10-10 Image 10-11

Image 10-12 Image 10-13

Image 10-14 Image 10-15 Image 10-16

264 | Sign L ang uag e Studi e s

Image 10-17 Image 10-18

Image 10-19 Image 10-20

Image 10-21 Image 10-22 Image 10-23