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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Attitudes in the American Deaf Community

Joseph Christopher Hill

Chapter Two
The American Deaf Community

For more than a hundred years, there was a concerted effort to eradicate any use of sign language in this country, and for all of that time American Sign Language was passed down, from generation to generation, without break, without faltering. Today, deaf children leave school after years of manually coded English and turn to ASL as their primary means of communication. Exposure to ASL can be delayed until adulthood, fluency in it can be thereby impaired, general linguistic competence can be thereby injured, but the great majority of deaf people will continue to use it as best and as soon as they can. Regardless of efforts to so — regardless of how hearing people try to imagine, reimagine, and reconstruct deafness — ASL and the deaf community, it would seem, will not be undone. (Baynton, 1996, p. 163).
Deaf ASL signers are able to acquire the language, traditions, and social behaviors that are the common features of American Deaf culture, but the channels of language acquisition are largely different from those in the mainstream society. Whereas spoken languages are transmitted from generation to generation within families, most Deaf people acquire sign language from other Deaf people and teachers because their hearing parents do not sign (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996, p. 48). While the existence of deaf people has been acknowledged in the mainstream society, Deaf culture is an unfamiliar concept to most people. Deafness is largely defined as a physical disability that can be mitigated with modern technology and accommodation such that people who are afflicted by deafness can be realigned with the mainstream society (Lane, 2002). It has not occurred to many people that deafness can also be a cultural attribute of a deaf community and that deaf people have their own language that is distinct from their spoken language. In addition, they unconsciously adhere to the definition of culture as one’s membership in a group, more specifically, as belonging to a family within a community, where language, tradition, and social behaviors are shared and passed on from adults to children in successive generations through familial relationships (Baynton, 1996, p. 2). The use of the uppercase D and the lowercase d in the word deaf has significant meaning to those who are familiar with Deaf culture. Uppercase D is used to describe communities of sign language users with various degrees of hearing loss who subscribe to similar cultural values, beliefs, and behaviors relating to deafness. Lowercase d describes the audiological condition of deafness. Individuals who are deaf may not necessarily be Deaf.

Historically, the cultural attributes of deaf communities arose within the educational institutions for the deaf where the community members acquired and used signed language, formed lifelong friendships, and developed their community identities as deaf people. In a world without institutions for deaf people, deaf communities would not be easily formed and signed languages would not be used as widely as they are today (Monaghan, 2003, p. 20). After the first American public institution for the deaf, the American School for the Deaf (ASD), was founded in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817, a signed language was developed from a mixture of French Sign Language (the native language of the school’s first deaf teacher), the indigenous sign language of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, the indigenous sign language of Henniker, New Hampshire, and deaf children’s home signs[5] (Lane et al., 1996, pp. 56–58). The signed language continued to flourish through generations of deaf children at ASD and other institutions for the deaf. Some of those deaf children became teachers and served as the signed language models for deaf children at the institutions. Some deaf graduates of the institutions had deaf and hearing children to whom they passed on their signed language. The founding of other institutions for the deaf spread southward and westward from the first institution in Hartford, and deaf communities formed around the institutions to maintain community ties (Lane et al., 1996; Padden & Humphries, 1988). With geographical separation, dialects of the signed language emerged in different communities.

Until the early 1960s, this language was simply called “the sign language” (Padden & Humphries, 2005). It finally received a name in 1965 when William C. Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline published the first linguistic analysis of what they called American Sign Language; this was the first study of any signed language in the world (Liddell, 2003, p. 2). This linguistic validation of ASL should have been cause for celebration, but instead it initially created anxiety, confusion, and anger (Liddell, 2003, p. 4; Padden & Humphries, 2005, pp. 125–128; Schein & Stewart, 1995, pp. 23–24). Anxiety emerged because the community struggled to understand ASL as more than just a way to communicate with hands and eyes and to equate its linguistic status with that of English, which had been long held as standard. Confusion occurred because it was difficult for the Deaf community to discuss ASL as a language in the midst of label changes: from the sign language to American Sign Language to Ameslan[6] to ASL (Padden & Humphries, 2005, pp. 126–127). Anger arose because the community’s belief that ASL was an imperfect system was challenged. Stokoe was attacked by people inside and outside of the American Deaf community because of his assertion that ASL was a valid linguistic system and should be used as a medium of instruction in the education systems for deaf children (Padden & Humphries, 2005; Schein & Stewart, 1995). A few decades later, ASL is now a popular language studied as a foreign or second language in secondary schools and postsecondary institutions (Padden & Humphries, 2005; Rosen, 2010).


    5. Home sign is a system of gestures spontaneously created in a single family with at least one deaf family member (typically a child). Because family members do not know sign language, they invent gestures to communicate with their deaf member (Goldin-Meadow and Mylander, 1994).

    6. The term “Ameslan” was coined by Louie J. Fant (1972).


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