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American Annals of the Deaf

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The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure
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one such variety of ASL, the Tactile ASL used by deaf-blind signers, which is distinct in its phonology,[2] morphosyntax, lexicon, and discourse structure from “sighted ASL” (Collins and Petronio 1998; Collins 2004). There is a widespread perception in the American Deaf community that Black ASL exists, and (mostly) anecdotal reports indicate that it is as distinct from the ASL used by White signers as vernacular African American English (AAE) is from middle-class White English (as seen earlier). However, empirical studies of Black ASL based on natural language have not previously been conducted. This book and DVD are the first steps to filling that gap in our knowledge. In the following pages, we address four main questions:
1. What sociohistorical reality would make a separate variety of ASL possible?
2. What are the features of the variety of ASL that people call “Black ASL”?[3]
3. Can the same kinds of unique features that have been identified for African American English be identified for Black ASL to show that it is a distinct variety of ASL?
4. If unique features exist, what are they, and what are the linguistic and social factors that condition their use?
How Language Varieties Come About

In order to describe Black ASL as a distinct variety of ASL, we should examine whether the sociohistorical conditions that Black and White Deaf people have experienced might have led to the emergence of a separate variety. This requires one more step back to ask how language varieties come about in general, whether signed or spoken. In a study of African American English, Rickford states, “All languages, if they have enough speakers, have dialects—regional or social varieties that develop when people are separated by geographic or social barriers” (1999, 320). There are a number of geographic and social factors involved in the formation of language varieties. Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (2006) state that “Dialects are most likely to develop where we find both physical and social separation among groups of speakers” (29). They discuss the factors involved in dialect formation, which include settlement patterns, migration, geographic features, language contact, economic ecology, social stratification, social interaction (e.g., social practices, speech communities), and group and individual identity. Settlement patterns have both to do with where people come from and where they settle. For example, “the initial patterns of habitation by English speakers from various parts of the British Isles, as well as by emigrants and enslaved peoples who spoke languages other than English, are still reflected in the patterning of dialect differentiation in the United States today” (30). Wolfram and Schilling-Estes go on to explain that, once settlements are established, dialect boundaries may reflect migration from these points and that geographic features such as mountains, rivers, and lakes are important insofar as they shape migration routes. Geographic isolation of course plays a role, as Bergmann, Hall, and Ross point out in Language Files: “[B]eing isolated from other speakers tends to allow a dialect to develop in its own way, through its own innovations that are different from those of other dialects” (2007, 419). Wolfram and Schilling-Estes further observe: “The most effective kind of communication is face-to-face, and when groups of speakers do not interact on a personal level with one another, the likelihood of dialect divergence is heightened” (2006, 32). Political boundaries such as national or local borders also need to be considered. Contact with other language groups also plays a role in the formation of dialects, as does economic ecology: “Different economic bases not only bring about the development of specialized vocabulary items associated with different occupations; they also may affect the direction and rate of language change in grammar and pronunciation” (34). Socioeconomic status has a well-documented role in the formation of varieties, as do social networks (Milroy 1987) (i.e., with whom people interact and talk on a daily basis).

A very useful construct is that of communities of practice (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992; Lave and Wenger 1991). Eckert (2000) defines such a group as “an aggregate of people who come together around some enterprise” and as “simultaneously defined by its membership and the shared practices in which that membership engages” (35). Communities of practice (CofP) are “dynamic and fluid” groups in which individuals “are seen as active agents in the construction of individual and group identity, rather than simply as passive respondents to the social situations in which they find themselves” (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 2006, 38). The idea of the CofP has often been more helpful in explaining patterns of variation than, say, more rigid notions of social class imposed by the researcher (Bucholtz 1999). Finally, group membership, whether voluntary or coerced, and personal identity have also been seen to have played roles in the emergence of language varieties.

Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (2006) also identify a number of linguistic factors such as rule extension, analogy, grammaticalization, phonological processes (e.g., assimilation), and word-formation processes (i.e., factors in dialect formation having to do specifically with the structure of language). As a result of these social and linguistic factors, we see differences between middle-class and working-class speech, varieties shaped by social class, age, gender, and ethnicity, as in the case of the Spanish used in the Southwest. As Wolfram and Schilling-Estes state, “These linguistic and social factors may come together in a myriad of ways, resulting in a multitude of dialects” (24).

Of course, varieties can also lose some of their distinctive characteristics when users of different dialects come into regular contact with each other. For example, in the United States, dialects on the East Coast tend to reflect the varieties of English brought by the original settlers. In the West, however, these differences became less distinct as settlers from north and south mingled on the frontier. In a similar way, we might expect to see differences between Black and White ASL become less noticeable as a result of the integration of residential schools and the increase in integrated mainstream  programs. In several of the following chapters we address the question of whether Black and White ASL are becoming more similar or are maintaining their linguistic distinctiveness.


2. The term phonology is used in sign linguistics to describe the same area of linguistics that it refers to in spoken language studies (i.e., the study of the basic units of the language, in this case handshape, location, palm orientation, movement, and facial expressions).

3. We use the term variety throughout to avoid the negative connotations associated with the term dialect. As linguists, we are of course aware that we all speak or sign one dialect or another, but in popular usage, the term dialect has come to be associated with language varieties that diverge from and are somehow less worthy than a “standard” language.


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