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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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Figure 1.1. Possible distinguishing features of Black ASL.

Figure 1.1 shows eight features that may serve to differentiate Black ASL from the ASL used by White signers. Six of the features (all except for lexical differences and the incorporation of AAE into the signing) are features of the ASL used by White signers, so what we are talking about is not a qualitative difference between Black signers and White signers but rather a quantitative one—that is, all ASL signers use these features, but Black signers may use them to a greater or lesser degree. When someone says, “Yeah, I see something different,” what they may be seeing is some combination of these eight features. According to Tabak (2006), “Nor can one point to a particular linguistic idiosyncrasy that is unique to the signed language of African-Americans—at least not in the sense that there exists a phrase or a grammatical convention that is shared by all African-American Deaf and no others” (98), and, in terms of six of the features in the mosaic, he is correct. However, his remark is evidently based entirely on his own personal observations since he does not report on any empirical data as a basis for this remark. His remark also overlooks a significant amount of lexical variation that distinguishes Black ASL from other varieties, as well as the incorporation of AAE features into Black ASL, something that, while it may subsequently be borrowed by White signers, clearly originates with Black signers. Furthermore, as we will see, the difference between Black signers and White signers in the use of repetition is quite striking, making it something that is almost unique to Black signers. Interestingly, Tabak does list lexical variation—“some differences in vocabulary”—as well as the size of the signing space and voiceless mouthing as differences between the students at the school for Black deaf children in Texas and the school for White deaf students. The size of the signing space and voiceless mouthing are two of the features in our mosaic. Again, Tabak’s remarks here seem to be based entirely on his own observation, as no source of data is reported. Burch and Joyner (2007) also report descriptions from two interviewees who commented on the signing at the Raleigh school. Although the interviewees referred to major differences between “Raleigh signs and ASL,” Burch and Joyner do not provide any examples.

Earlier Research

Research on all aspects of the structure and use of ASL and other sign languages has progressed continuously since Stokoe’s work in the 1960s (see Brentari 2010 and Emmorey and Lane 2000 for overviews). Researchers have also noticed differences between Black and White signing for at least forty years. Linguistic descriptions of the differences between Black and White signing focus primarily on Black signers in the South. For example, in his appendices to the 1965 Dictionary of American Sign Language (DASL), which he coauthored with William Stokoe and Dorothy Casterline, Croneberg discusses these differences as a consequence of the segregation of deaf schools in the South. Based on responses to a 134-item sign vocabulary list, he reports “a radical dialect difference between the signs” of a young North Carolina Black woman and those of White signers living in the same city (315). Other studies of Black ASL, which are described in detail in the chapters dealing with specific linguistic features, are mostly small scale. They include work on phonology (Lucas, Bayley, and Valli 2001; Woodward, Erting, and Oliver 1996; Woodward and DeSantis 1977), lexical variation (Aramburo 1989; Guggenheim 1993; Lucas, Bayley, Reed, and Wulf 2001), language attitudes (Lewis, Palmer, and Williams 1995), and parallels between Black ASL and African American speech styles (Lewis 1998).

The role of deaf education in the development of ASL varieties has also been a subject of investigation. Lucas, Bayley, and Valli (2001) showed a clear and strong link between linguistic variation in ASL and the history of deaf education, in particular the language policies implemented at schools for the deaf over the years. These policies ranged from the use of ASL in the classroom beginning in 1817 at the first school, the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, through the strict oralism that was enforced in most schools from the 1880s through the early 1970s (to the exclusion of sign language in the classroom), to the various “combined” methods of signing and talking simultaneously implemented in the 1970s, and finally back to the use of ASL in the classroom in many schools today. The signers who participated in the research of Lucas, Bayley, and Valli (2001) were divided into three age groups according to the language policy in place at the time they were in school: 55 and older (oralist), 26–54 (combined method, and also the period when Stokoe was beginning his research and ASL was starting to be recognized as a real language), and 15–25 (in the project sites, which used ASL as the medium of instruction in the classroom). This division proved to be statistically significant for all of the phonological and the syntactic variables examined.


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