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Narrative gestures, geographical, and mental maps in Copalillo Guerrero Nahuatl Page 1 of 28

Narrative gestures, geographical, and mental maps in
Copalillo Guerrero Nahuatl

Presented to:

Friends of Uto-Aztecan Conference

By
Tezozomoc
July 8-9, 2001
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ABSTRACT:
A review of the current Nahuatl literature contains no work in the area of Nahuatl
speakers and their gestures. This paper presents one case study of Nahuatl speakers
from Copalillo, Guerrero (CG). The narrative is the retelling of a CG myth entitled, “El
Primer Mexico”. While currently living in California, the speakers were able to
reconstruct through gestures a narrative space. They imposed their local geography on
to the narrative space. Furthermore, the mythic aspects of the story that were not from
the real world were laminated upon the same narrative space. This study finds
evidence that CG Nahuatl speakers feel compelled to make narrative space an accurate
reflection of geographical space. At the same time they intregate mythic aspects into
the narrative space. Referents are clearly laid out and repeated and accurate
references are made upon the narrative space.
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Introduction
A review of the current Nahuatl literature contains no work in the area of Nahuatl
speakers and their gestures. In recent years there has been an extensive amount of
research done in the field of gestures by individuals such as Adam Kendon, David
McNeill, and others. While most of the research has concentrated on the more
accessible languages, those remote and endangered ones have not benefited from the
same luxury. This paper had the luxury of having had access to one of those languages
that is remote and not easily accessible. Copalillo Guerrero is a small town south of
Mexico City. While the research was not done in Copalillo Guerrero, it was done with
CG migrants living in the United States.

This paper will study how CG speakers map their gestures. This will be done through
the analysis of a CG myth entitled, “El Primer Mexico”. The myth has been handed
down through oral tradition, as is the custom of these language speakers. The final
goal of this paper will be to find a common approach to explain how CG speakers map
the oral narrative, myth, and gestures.

Review of Literature
Several complex subjects will be explored in this paper. While it is not possible to delve
into each subject with great depth and breadth it is necessary to at least present some
elemental definitions in each one of the subjects.

Roland Barthes based much of his work on Saussure’s theory of the sign. Barthes
offers a paradigm that works well with myths. This paradigm is what Barthes calls a
second-order signification (Barthes 1995). A first-order signification is what is typically
called a signifier, signified, and symbol by Saussure. This would include the signifier
/cat/, which signifies a real entity [cat]. The second order signification is clarified in the
following manner,
What myth does is appropriate a first-order sign and use it as a platform
for its own signifier which, in turn, will have its own signified, thus forming
a new sign.” (Barthes, 1995).

The next section will attempt to present a clear picture of the symbols used by CG
speakers.

Myth
Myth, at its bare basic, “…is a type of speech” (Barthes 1995). Barthes (1995) further
states that, “…it is not any type: language needs special conditions in order to become
myth…” Myth selects certain requirements, “…myth is a system of communication, that
it is a message. This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a
concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form.” (Barthes 1995). Barthes
(1995) further declares that,
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Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on
so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials
of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying
consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their
substance.
This concept of signified, signifier, and the sign will appear in the investigation of
gesture.

What is the result of the signification? It is that, “Semiology has taught us that myth has
the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency
appear eternal.” (Barthes 1995). This very point will be further elaborated in St. Clair
(2000).

So, in Barthes words a myth is a narrative form that is given special meaning by
a culture and therefore it becomes a symbol/sign of the culture.

Barthes (1995) has given a clear and exemplary definition of myth, which will be applied
to the myth, “El Primer Mexico” from Copalillo Guerrero.

Gesture
In the last two decades there has been much work done in the area of gesture studies.
Researchers like Adam Kendon, David McNeill, and others have been in the forefront in
gesture research. This paper makes use of McNeill’s (1992) work. McNeill (1992)
discusses the development of gestures as a form of symbol formation (McNeill 1992:
296). McNeill (1992) writes that, “The emergence of gesture and language is a process
of increasing symbolization, of symbol formation…”. McNeill (1992:296) gives a very
clear description of the semiological content of gesture,
Within a symbol there is an overt sign, the physical presentation of the
symbol, such as a gesture or spoken word. This physical side was called
the “signifier” by Saussure ([1916] 1959). The concept to which the
signifier is connected was called the “signified.” Together, signifier and
signified jointly comprise the “symbol.”

This definition from McNeill allows a connection to the definition of myth. At their very
basic nature myth and gesture represent the same type of communicative system: The
signifier, signified, and the sign.

While there seems to be a connection between myth and gesture together, there is still
the need to find a unifying concept to include why CG speakers have the compelling
need to align their geography to the cardinal system. Is there such a connection to be
found in symbol formation and cardinal orientation?
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Quaternity
Robert N. St. Clair (2000) in his paper “Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the
New Rhetoric”, presents some historical issues with the concept of fourness in Native
American communities. St. Clair (2000) covers fourness and its significance,
There are two dominant metaphors among most indigenous groups in the
Americas. One of them is the journey and the other is the Quaternity.
Among many of these groups, both metaphors are combined into the
Quaternity, which consists of a circle in which the solar cross is inscribed.
The circle represents the eternality of motion, and the cross signifies the
four cardinal directions of the earth, the four winds, the four spirits of
nature, and so forth.”
While St. Clair (2000) brought into focus the issue of the quaternity in Native American
indigenous societies it is necessary to get a better picture of this representation in
Nahuatl speaking communities. Enrique Florescano’s (2001), “The Nahua Concept of
Time and Space”, gives a good summary
…the cosmogony establishes a geometric division of the space of the
earth, which is conceived as a horizontal surface in the shape of a
rectangle surrounded by water. On this horizontal plane that makes up
the earth, the sacred center that unifies the various parts of the universe is
founded. This is the point that establishes vertical communication among
the heavens, the earth, and the underworld and that horizontally ties
together the four cardinal points: east, north, west, and south.
Clearly, it is seen that Nahuatl people are using a symbolic form to arrange their
perception of the universe and of time. Nahuatl people depend and rely on the
cyclicalness of their symbolic universe, “The repetition of cosmogonic creation in human
foundations is, then, an entreaty against the change and instability of historical
happening, a calling to the permanence of primordial order” (Florescano 2001). These
cyclical processes are at time caused by natural events, i.e. earthquakes, fires, floods,
etc. But there are also cataclysms that are created by humans (Florescano 2001).
When the world is contaminated it is necessary to completely abolish and destroy the
old (Florescano 2001). Once this world is destroyed then the new world is a replica of
what had existed at the moment of creation (Florescano 2001).

Again, the concept of symbolization has appeared in the concept of Nahua cosmogony.
Now, there is path in the literature that ties all of these subjects together. It is time now
turn to John Haviland (2000) in his paper, “Pointing, gesture spaces, and mental maps.”
Haviland’s paper presents the best exploration of presenting the oral narrative.

Gesture Spaces
There is now a certain confidence that the signifier, signified, and symbol can be use to
represent the concepts that we set to deal with in this paper. Haviland’s work will now
be used to show how CG speakers are compelled to map referents in the gesture space
based on their knowledge of local geography. This will happen in the gesture space
that Haviland (2000:22) describes. The gesture space is created and populated from
the speaker’s knowledge (Haviland 2000:19). While some groups choose to place
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referents in the gesture space arbitrarily other groups like the Chiapanecos have a more
rigid system (Haviland 2000:22). The Chiapanecos superimpose a cardinal system on
their use of gesture space. Their narratives seem to require an absolute cardinal
system. Interlocutors may choose to manage absent referents through creatively and
synthetically placing them in the interaction space, or they may arrange and account for
them in a socially prescribed manner, such as cardinal pointing (Haviland 2000:23).

Haviland (2000:24) introduces the concept of mental map to describe the internal
conceptual space in the minds of the conversants. “…When conversants are actively
trying to construct or agree about spatial relationships, space itself can be a mnemonic
through which knowledge of land, terrain, and territory can be (re)constructed and
(re)calculated. The gesture spaces of conversation constitute an interactively available
…” Haviland (2000:27) studies a group of Tzotzil Chiapanecos and their narrative
gestures and how their directions are dominated by their knowledge of their local
geography.

Haviland (2000:35) also documents gesture space transposition. This transposition can
be done to a whole narrative. The speaker is able to superimpose local geography on a
narrated gesture space (Haviland 2000:38).

One more point of clarification involves the issue of frame of reference. This concept
was dealt in Pederson, et al. and Li and Gleitman (1999). These researchers elucidate
why languages have a predisposition for either absolute or relative frame of reference.

Relative or Absolute frame of Reference
The work of Pederson, et al. (1994) and Li and Gleitman (1999) discuss the
issues of relative and absolute frame of reference. In Pederson, et al. (1994)
cross-linguistic experiments were performed to demonstrate that speakers who
use relative reference in their languages tend to give conceptually relative
responses. Li and Gleitman (1999) reproduced the work of Pederson, et al.
(1994). CG Nahuatl is a relative frame of reference language.

It is our prediction that CG Nahuatl speakers will use their symbol preferences for
mapping the oral narrative, the myth and their knowledge of their local geography
on the gesture space.
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Methodology
The data set consisted of two informants. Subject A and Subject B Mexican CG
Nahuatl immigrants living in Norwalk, California. Subject A is married to Subject B. She
is a female in her 40s, and Subject B is a male in his 40s. Subject A and Subject B are
also Native Americans. They are both from the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Their first
language is Copalillo Guerrero Nahuatl. Subject A has 100% comprehension in
Nahuatl, but she only speaks Spanish. Subject B is fluent in Nahuatl and Spanish. He
did not learn Spanish until his 20s. They have been living in the United States since the
80s.

The author has participated in community activities with Subject B and his wife. He has
known them over a period of 3 years. The author has participated in the same
ceremonies as the subjects. They were recruited them through the association with the
author. The author expressed that he wanted to study Nahuatl Oral Narrative. They
were willing to participate. They were not aware that the author was studying gestures
before this recording.

Data Collection Scene:
The data collection session was done on a workday during the evening. The author met
Subject A and Subject B at their residence in Norwalk, California. It was explained to
them that the author was interested in recording Nahuatl Oral Narrative. He did not
mention anything about gesture studies. They sat in front of their family altar. They
consider that these stories should only be told in front of a sacred place, in this case
their family altar. The altar is facing towards the Southwest. They were recorded for
approximately 36 minutes. There was no one else in the room. The author came in to
turn the recorder on and then to turn it off at the end.

The author recommended a couple of stories that he had heard from Subject B. He
obliged by retelling the story of, “The First Mexico” in his native language of Nahuatl.

The film was time stamped and coded. The subjects were presented with translations
of the Human Subjects release forms. I translated the English ones to Spanish and had
them sign them.
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Data Analysis
In this section of the data analysis at least seven gestures will be analyzed to provide
empirical data for the previously stated premise.

McNeill’s (1992:87-88, 377-380) method of transcribing and coding will be used in
analyzing these gestures. McNeill’s method consists of categorizing a gesture along
five categories. These are;
I. Gesture type.
II. Form and meaning of the gesture
III. Representational and deictic gestures
IV. Gestural form and meaning
V. Beat filter
Category V. will be of no consequence for this data set, since beats are not an issue.
The analysis will concentrate of the first four categories.

Pederson, et al. (1994) and Li and Gleitman (1999) pointed out that one of the first
things that needed to be determined is the type of the reference this language group
uses. Overall, the Nahuatl family group uses body relationship to speak of directions.
For example the left hand concept is “opo:chtli” and the right one is “melahuac”. On the
other hand, the Nahuatl family group also uses cardinal directions to specify
geographical locations. Per St. Clair (2000) the quaternity is a concept that is
embedded in Native American cultures. Knowing this it became necessary to validate if
CG speakers use relative frame of reference.

Geographical Orientation
When the author first performed the data collection it was assumed that the speakers
were aligned cardinally. The data collection was performed in front of the subjects’ altar
and most altars usually tend to be aligned looking toward the East. At least, this was
the authors experience with Native American altars. So, the original assumption was
that the speakers were matching the story referents to the real geography and matching
them correctly. See the map below for a view of CG.
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Map 1 Copalillo Guerrero

North
Chiauhtla(3)

Cuetzalla(2) Puebla(4)

Tecaballo
Tetoro(5)

Copalillo(1)

From Map 1 the narrator is telling the myth as if he was telling it from his town of origin,
Copalillo Guerrero. Following that assumption it became necessary to determine what
type of reference was being used. Especially, since this assumption went against
Pederson, et al. (1994), results that relative reference languages prefer relative
designation. It seemed that it was going to be necessary to perform another data
collection, but this time the participants were going to be rotated 180 degrees. This
would have been along the same lines as the “Animals-in-a-row” experiment from
Pederson, et al. (1994:575). In this task the subject was presented, “…memorizing a
transverse sequence of three different toy animals all right-left symmetrical and all
facing the same direction. The subject is then turned around 180 degrees and
reconstructs the memorized array.” Through this task the subject revealed the frame of
reference used by his language.

When the second collection was setup the author decided to take a compass along just
to be sure about the cardinal directions. It turned out that the altar was not aligned with
the East. It was lined to the Southwest and the subjects were facing South. From this it
was determined that the second data collection was not necessary. This revealed that
the subjects were lining up the story with a relative frame of reference. The story was
internally geographically correct. Adding this new information to Map1 produces Map2
below.
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Map 2 Copalillo Guerrero with participants

North
South Chiauhtla(3)

Cuetzalla(2) Puebla(4)

Tecaballo
Tetoro(5)
Subject B
Male

Copalillo(1)

Subject A
Female

Geographical Map
Having lined up the real geography it is time to let our subject layout the mental
geography and compare the real one, to the mapped geography. First, we begin with a
gesture that maps the location of the beginning of the myth, “El Primer Mexico”. Two
young men from Cuetzallan, Puebla are gathered together to retell an old legend.

Snapshot 1 01:18:28 Beginning of Preparation
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Snapshot 2 Beginning of Stroke

Snapshot 3 End of Stroke, return to neutral

Oquimchihca omime telpocameh incha:n [01:18:28][Cuetzallan][01:19:23], Puebla.

O-quim-chih-ca omime telpoca-meh in-cha:n [01:18:28][Cuetzallan][01:19:23], Puebla.

Antecessive-they-wait-pluperfective two young man –plural their-house
[01:18:28]
[place name Cuetzallan][01:19:23], Puebla.

“Two young men were sitting around in their home town of [01:18:28][Cuetzallan][01:19:23],
Puebla.”

Table 1 Gesture 1: 1st location of Cuetzallan, Puebla.
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Head
Shape: n/a
Motion shape and place: Circular, about neck
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Head Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Point towards a mapped location to the left of the speaker.
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5

Gesture 2 shows a repeated identification of Cuetzallan, Puebla. It is in the same
location as in Gesture1.

Snapshot 4 Cuetzallan Puebla Beginning of Stroke

Snapshot 5 End of Stroke, Beginning of retraction

O:ya onocueppa ca i:cha:n [00:04:48:00][Cuetzallan][00:04:48:14].

o:-ya o-no-cueppa ca i:-cha:n [00:04:48:00][Cuetzallan] [00:04:48:14].

Antecessive-go antecessive-his-return supplementive marker his-house
[00:04:48:00]
[Cuetzallan][00:04:48:14].
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“He had returned to his house in [00:04:48:00][Cuetzallan][00:04:48:14].

Table 2 Gesture 2: Repeated identification of Cuetzallan, Puebla.
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Head
Shape: n/a
Motion shape and place: Circular, about neck
Head Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Point towards a mapped location to the left of the speaker.
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5

The next four gestures involved repeated identification of a mountain range that is seen
across from Copalillo (1) (See above map.) to where it ends in Tecaballo (5), also
known as Tetoro(5).

Snapshot 6 Beginning of Stroke for Tepetl
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Snapshot 7 End of Stroke, Beginning retraction for Tepetl

Snapshot 8 Eng of retraction for Tepetl.

…O:quinemilleh telpocahuan [nea Tepetl] i:toca Tecaballo.

O:-qui-nemi-(i)il-leh telpoca-huan [nea Tepetl] i:toca Tecaballo.

Antecessive-he-walk-tell-vocative young man-possive [it is mountain range] it-
name Tecaballo(5).

“He went on to tell the young that the [mountain range] is called Tecaballo(5).”

Table 3 Gesture 3: Placement of Mountain range that runs to the end of Tecaballo.
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Right Hand
Shape: ASL hand shape G
Motion shape and Uni-2 PF
place:
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Hand Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Point towards the beginning of the mountain range that ends in
Tecaballo.
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5

Gesture 4: Identification of Tecaballo(5).
Snapshot 9 Beginning of Stroke for Tecaballo.

Snapshot 10 End of Stroke for Tecaballo.
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Snapshot 11 End of Retraction for Tecaballo.

…O:quinemilleh telpocahuan nea Tepetl i:toca [Tecaballo].

O:-qui-nemi-(i)il-leh telpoca-huan nea Tepetl i:toca [Tecaballo].

Antecessive-he-walk-tell-vocative young man-possive it is mountain range it-
name [Tecaballo(5)].

“He went on to tell the young that the mountain range is called [Tecaballo(5)].”
Table 4 Gesture 4: Identification of Tecaballo(5).
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Head
Shape: n/a
Motion shape and place: Circular, about neck
Head Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Points right towards a mapped location of Tecaballo.
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5
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Gesture 5: Second identification of Tecaballo(5).

Snapshot 12 Beginning of Preparation for Tecaballo(5).

Snapshot 13 Beginning of Stroke for Tecaballo(5).

Snapshot 14 End of Stroke for Tecaballo(5).
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Quien sabe? [Nea Tecaballo.]

Who know? [It is Tecaballo.]

Table 5 Gesture 5: Second identification of Tecaballo(5).
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Head
Shape: n/a
Motion shape and place: Circular, about neck
Head Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Points right towards a mapped location of Tecaballo(5).
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5
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Gesture6: 3rd Identification of Tecaballo also known as Tetoro.

Snapshot 15 Preparation for Tetoro.

Snapshot 16 Beginning of Stroke for Tetoro.

Snapshot 17 End of Retraction for Tetoro.
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Tecaballo, Te[toro].

It is Tecaballo, it is Te[toro].

Table 6 Gesture 6: 3rd Identification of Tecaballo also known as Tetoro.
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Head
Shape: n/a
Motion shape and place: Circular, about neck
Head Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Points right towards a mapped location of Tetoro(5).
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5

Gesture 7 involves the identification of Chiauhtla(3), Puebla, which runs along the same
line of sight as Cuetzallan(2).
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Snapshot 18 Preparation for Chiauhtlan(3).

Snapshot 19 Beginning of Stroke for Chiauhtlan(3).

Snapshot 20 End of Retraction for Chiauhtlan(3).

…Connechittalo panemeh [Chiauhtlan].

c-on-nech-itta-lo pane-meh [Chiauhtlan].
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it-thither-I-see-passive cross-vocative [Chiauhtlan].

“I went across to it, [Chiauhtlan].”
Table 7 Gesture 7: Identification of Chiauhtlan(3).
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Left Hand
Shape: ASL hand shape bent 4
Motion shape and place: Uni-2 AB
Hand Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Point towards the left in the location of Chiauhtlan(3).
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5

Mythic mapping
The next two gestures involve placement of mythic information upon the projected map.
This is a combination transposition and mental mapping of mythic information on the
real geography. Here the narrator has moved location from CG to Tecaballo.

Gesture 8: Involves placing of a magical door made into the rock wall of a canyon at
Tecaballo.
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Snapshot 21 Preparation of Caltextleh.

Snapshot 22 Beginning of Stroke for Caltextleh.

Snapshot 23 End of Stroke for Caltextleh.
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Huei [caltextleh] cuacualtzin caltextleh.

Huei [caltexltleh] cua-cual-tzin caltextleh.

Great [rock wall] redup-beautiful-honorific rock wall.

“A great [rock wall], a very beautiful rock wall.”

Table 8 Gesture 8: Projection of rock wall on the geographical space.
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Left Hand
Shape: ASL hand shape 5
Motion shape and place: Uni-2 AB, PS
Hand Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Drawing a circular image of the rock wall.
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5

Gesture 9: Involves the description of a great magical city. Again, another example of
narrator transposition.
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Snapshot 24 Beginning of Preparation for Hueica.

Snapshot 25 Start of Stroke for Hueica.

Snapshot 26 End of Stroke for Hueica.
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…ixtlamati [hueica] cuacualtzin.

ix-tla-mati [huei-ca] cau-cual-tzin.

to know [great place] dupl-beautiful-honorific.

“He/she knew this great beautiful city.”
Table 9 Gesture 9: Projection of the great magical city on the geography.
Gesture Type Deictic
Which body Part Both Hands
Shape: ASL hand shape 5
Motion shape and place: 2SM PF
Hand Meaning: Deictic
Motion Meaning: Drawing a circular image of the magical city.
Body meaning: None
Space Meaning: None
Gloss Narrative
Confidence 5
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Conclusion
In this paper it was set out that CG speaker prefer a certain configuration of
symbolization. In particular, symbolization of myth, gesture space, and geography.
Using Barthes paradigm of the second order semiological construction it can be said
that every aspect of the CG speaker’s performance contributed to a unified signifier,
signified, and symbol. The signified was constructed through the use of lexeme items
(words), and symbolic gestures. This signifier was as close as possible to the signified,
that is, the conversants' knowledge of their local geography, even though distant from it.
The conversants were able to make repeated and accurate significations to the
projected signifier’s. Subject B was able to map out those geographical locations as
closely possible to the frame of reference that he had projected (See Map 2). The
narrators’ knowledge of his local geography required a certain cardinal requirement, as
expressed by Florescano (2001), Pederson, et al. (1994), and Li and Gleitman (1999).
The analysis of the nine gestures provides empirical data that the subjects are obeying
the predictions made by these researchers.

At the end of the oral narrative, and the gestures, we have a constructed symbol. What
is that symbol signifying? The signification is in line with Florescano’s (2001) prediction
about human interference with the order of the universe. By the young men going over
to a place that was forbidden to them they caused a human made cataclysm. The
cataclysm is the Nahua’ understanding of how the past worlds were destroyed to be
built anew (Florescano 2001). That is to say that “El Primer Mexico” could have been a
past Mexico or a future Mexico and that by these young men violating the rules set by
their community they caused the destruction of this current world. This is a possible
signification of the myth, “El Primer Mexico”.
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Bibliography
Barthes, Roland, Translation by Lavers, Annette, Hill and Wang. 1995, “Mythologies”.
New York, October 1995, http://xroads.virginia.edu/g/DRBR/myth.html (March
21, 2001)

Florescano, Enrique, Translation by Bork, Albert G. with the assistance of Bork, Kathryn
R., New York University, “The Nahua Concept of Time and Space”, No date is
given for publication of manuscript, http://hemi.ps.tsoa.nyu.edu:8000/course-
nyu/conquest/materials/text/nahuatime.html, (March 21, 2001).

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Appendix
Attach original, signed release forms.