Observations on the Use of Manual Signs and Gestures in the Communicative Interactions between Native Americans and Spanish Explorers of North America: The Accounts of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and ÁLvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca

By Bonvillian, John D.; Ingram, Vicky L. et al. | Sign Language Studies, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Observations on the Use of Manual Signs and Gestures in the Communicative Interactions between Native Americans and Spanish Explorers of North America: The Accounts of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and ÁLvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca


Bonvillian, John D., Ingram, Vicky L., McCleary, Brendan M., Sign Language Studies


IN THE YEARS following the "discovery" of the New World in 1492 by Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish), expeditions under the auspices of Spain explored the lands bordering the Caribbean Sea. The goals of these expeditions varied widely. In some instances they were undertaken primarily as voyages of exploration that searched for new lands. Sometimes the objective of the European explorers was to establish trading relations with the inhabitants of these "new" lands. Other expeditions, however, were raids designed primarily to capture native peoples and force them into slavery. Finally, some large-scale undertakings aimed at establishing settlements or conquering peoples.

The Spanish explorers and the indigenous peoples they encountered often experienced serious communication barriers.1 Not only did they typically not have a spoken language in common, but their cultures were also very different. At times these barriers were breached, if not overcome, by indigenous persons who had learned to speak some Spanish. This approach, however, had its drawbacks. It took time for the native inhabitants to acquire proficiency in Spanish, and the interpreting needs changed constantly as the explorers continued to encounter new peoples who spoke still other languages. In some instances, though, a Spanish explorer acquired sufficient facility in a language spoken by members of one group of Native Americans to communicate effectively with them. He was then likely to be able to communicate through an interpreter with members of other native groups who spoke different languages, particularly in view of the fact that some Native Americans knew more than one indigenous tongue. These plurilingual individuals might then be pressed into service as interpreters when Spanish explorers needed to interact with new groups whose languages they did not know.

On many occasions, however, either no interpreters were available, or those who were present did not know the language of a newly encountered people. In these situations, the Spaniards and the Native Americans frequently relied on manual signs, pantomime, or gestures to communicate with one another. Although the resulting communicative interactions were frequently rather limited in their scope and complexity, the exchanges apparently were often successful in conveying essential information between the parties. This reliance on manual signs and gestures to overcome speech communication barriers occurred repeatedly during the exploration of North America by Europeans.

Much of the extant information about the use of manual signs and gestures between Spanish explorers and the indigenous peoples of the New World has come from the journals, reports, and letters written by the explorers themselves. In these accounts, both the European explorers and the indigenous persons were depicted as employing manual or gestural communication as one means among several to manage their encounters. Both groups used gestures or manual signs to establish trade relations, solicit information, threaten one another, and even engage in devious maneuvering in an effort to take advantage of the other group. Clearly, communication through manual signs and gestures was very important in the initial encounters between the early European explorers and the native peoples of the New World.

Despite the apparent importance of manual communication in these expeditions, historians rarely include a discussion of the use of manual signs in their accounts of the initial interactions between peoples from two such contrasting worlds. There are several reasons that may explain the general failure to examine this phenomenon. One is that the study of sign languages and sign language communication has come to the academic forefront only in the past several decades. Until relatively recently, little was known about the structure of manual signs (S toko e i960) and how information was conveyed in a visualmotor language used by deaf persons (Wilbur 1987) or by Native Americans (Farnell 1995). …

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Observations on the Use of Manual Signs and Gestures in the Communicative Interactions between Native Americans and Spanish Explorers of North America: The Accounts of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and ÁLvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca
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