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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure
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African American English

African American English[4] (AAE) is a very well-documented variety of English that illustrates the role of these geographic and social factors in the formation of a language variety. It is also directly relevant to the project described in this book. More than fifty years of research findings have documented the structure and use of AAE in rich detail. In addition, AAE has been shown to be a rule-governed and systematic variety of English distinct in its structure from other varieties of English, a variety that acquired its distinctiveness over a long period of time and as a result of the interaction of many historical and social forces.[5] Furthermore, not only linguists but also both Black and White laypersons recognize AAE as distinct from other English varieties. While laypersons and linguists may use different labels to identify this variety (e.g., Ebonics), they nevertheless easily and clearly perceive it to be distinct from middle class White English, as well as from other varieties of English. Moreover, many empirical descriptions of AAVE structure and use solidly confirm laypersons’ perceptions of distinctiveness.

Another Variety of ASL: Tactile ASL

Research on other varieties of ASL is also relevant to the present volume, most notably the work on what is known as Tactile ASL, the variety of ASL used by deaf-blind people, specifically those with the genetic condition Usher syndrome I. Individuals with this condition are born deaf and later, usually in their teenage years, start losing vision in varying degrees due to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that is characterized by progressive loss of peripheral vision and eventually leads to central vision loss. Crucially, most deaf-blind people in this category grow up using ASL and are fluent signers by the time they begin to lose their sight. A variety of ASL has emerged in this community that accommodates the loss of sight at all linguistic levels: phonological, morphological, syntactic, and discourse. One of the consequences of the loss of sight is that deaf-blind people no longer have access to the numerous ASL grammatical and discourse markers produced on a signer’s face. Remarkably, these nonmanual (facial) markers are produced on the hands in Tactile ASL. For example, the raised eyebrows required for yes/no questions or the nodding required for back-channeling are produced manually (see Collins and Petronio 1998 and Collins 2004 for fuller accounts). As mentioned, features of Tactile ASL appear at every level of the language, and there is a vigorous community of deaf-blind signers who use Tactile ASL. Tactile ASL qualifies as a clear example of a variety of ASL. In addition, research has demonstrated the existence of tactile varieties of other sign languages such as Swedish Sign Language (Mesch 2000) and Norwegian Sign Language (Raanes 2006). The project we describe here explores the specific linguistic and sociolinguistic factors that might qualify Black ASL as a variety of ASL in the same way that Tactile ASL has been shown to be a variety of ASL. People say, “I see something different—different from other signing,” and it is our goal to describe what that “something” is and which factors have contributed to its formation.

So What About Black ASL?

We return now to the physical and social factors that Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (2006) describe as playing a role in shaping language varieties. As for settlement patterns, migration, and geographic isolation, the physical and social segregation and oppression that have affected the Black hearing community and contributed to the emergence of AAE have also affected the Black Deaf community. In the chapter on race, deafness, and ASL in his book on the history of ASL, Tabak (2006) lists physical isolation and geography as two of three factors that “have served to increase the variability of American Sign Language among African-American Deaf ” (98).[6] The reality that unites physical and social segregation and oppression is the establishment of separate schools or departments for Black deaf children. As chapter 2 explains, such schools and departments were established in seventeen states and in the District of Columbia.

Until well after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which made segregation illegal, Black children’s contact with White people was for the most part limited to the school context. This is quite different from the integrated school environments that the younger signers in our study experienced. However, as chapter 4 explains, younger and older signers alike show a clear sense of group reference and personal identity as “Black Deaf ” and can explain differences between Black signing and White signing. As Wolfram and Schilling-Estes state, “Sometimes, group membership is voluntary and negotiated by the individual and the various groups to which they seek to belong, and sometimes it is rooted in established social strictures (e.g., class or gender groups) and is not completely a matter of choice—or at least [a] very easy choice” (2006, 41). Attendance by Black deaf children at segregated schools or departments was clearly a matter of discrimination and racism and never a matter of choice, but the result was a strong sense of group membership and personal identity.

As for linguistic explanations of the existence of language varieties, in chapters 5, 6, and 7 we explore specific features pertaining to phonological variation, variation in syntax and discourse, and the outcomes of language contact, specifically that between ASL and AAE. Chapter 8 focuses on the lexical variation in our data, both as produced by the signers who participated and as they discussed it. We are, of course, aware of an abundance of lexical differences between Black and White signers, and we account for those in our data. However, our goal is to take the analysis beyond lexical variation to other linguistic features such as handedness (i.e., use of twohanded signs or their corresponding one-handed variants), the size of the signing space, the lowering of signs (for example, from the forehead to the face or the space in front of the signer), and the use of voiceless mouthing, clausal repetition, constructed action, and constructed dialogue, as well as the incorporation of AAE into the signing. What we propose is a mosaic of features.


4. The variety of English spoken by African Americans in the rural South and inner cities of the North has been referred to by a number of names, including Black English Vernacular (BEV), African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and, most recently, African American English (AAE), the term we have adopted here. These terms all refer to a distinct dialect that differs in structure and pronunciation from general U.S. English spoken by members of all racial groups, including, of course, many African Americans.

5. See Mufwene et al. (1998) and Green (2004) for reviews of the AAE literature. Edwards (2008) and Wolfram (2008) provide succinct outlines of the main distinctive features of AAE phonology and grammar, while Green (2002) provides a detailed analysis of AAE linguistic structure. Rickford and Rickford (2000) offer a nontechnical discussion of AAE and its place in African American life and culture.

6. The third factor that Tabak lists is the existence of temporal variation in any language, such that older Black Deaf signers sign differently from younger ones. That is, like all living languages and dialects, Black ASL changes over time


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