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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Primary Movement in Sign Languages: A Study of Six Languages
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Indeed, such rerooting might have occurred with respect to ASL. ASL emerged mainly from two sources: the variety of LSF Laurent Clerc brought to the United States (Lane 1984; Sacks 1989; Van Cleve and Crouch 1989) plus the sign already in use on Martha’s Vineyard (which probably was not a variety of BSL; but see Groce 1985). Woodward (1976), using glottochronological procedures (as in Gudschinsky 1964), compares the lexicons of ASL and LSF and concludes that the degree of similarity (less than 60% of the lexicon) is lower than one would expect from a daughter given that the split was as recent as 1816, unless, in fact, that daughter has been creolized (see Woodward 1989).

To the contrary, Lupton and Salmons (1996) argue that ASL does not meet the usual definitions of a creole, pointing particularly to morphology they analyze as inflectional (and, thus, atypical of creoles). Although it is debatable whether ASL really has inflections (Liddell 2003) and further debatable what types of inflections creoles actually do allow (Patrick 1999), and although many still analyze ASL as a creole, Auslan is certainly not a creole (Woll 1991), and we know of no argument claiming that LIS is a creole.

So our finding that the sign daughters with a direct line of descent cluster together and in some ways are more conservative than the diaspora daughters may, in the worst case, turn out to be purely specific to the languages studied here. We doubt that, however. A distinction between daughters of an earlier language that were exposed to multiple other language groups through migration and daughters of that language that were not so exposed sometimes occurs in spoken language as well. Thus, in the Romance languages, the daughters of Proto-Romance that stayed on the Italic peninsula and its islands (the original home of Proto-Romance) have in many ways been more conservative than their sisters outside the Italic peninsula that had contact with other languages—the language(s) of Sardinia, among the most isolated, being perhaps the most conservative (Posner 1996; Marazzini 1999; Maiden, Smith, and Ledgeway 2010)—although we note that Romanian is also strongly conservative in many respects.

There is an additional reason not to be shocked at our division between origin-bound and diaspora languages—a very strong reason. All debates about the creole or hybrid status of ASL aside, and all debates about what happens in the history of spoken languages aside, we note that the histories of ASL, LIS, and Auslan differ from the histories of many spoken languages in a significant way. Consider ASL. In 1817 Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Frenchman and an American man, respectively, established the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (which later was renamed the American School for the Deaf; Lane 1984). The school opened with seven students, by the end of the year had thirty-three, and continued to grow steadily. Rather than an entire community of LSF users coming to the United States, these two men brought LSF to a group of students who had already been using a variety of sign languages and home sign. So the new users of LSF far outnumbered the old users. The ground was fertile for innovation. And this type of scenario is not unusual for new schools for the Deaf. So one should not a priori expect the history of languages in such a situation to proceed in the same manner as the history of languages when whole communities of speakers move from one place to another (see Woodward 2010). To the contrary, one might well expect differences in how the languages evolve. And, as we will show, the diaspora daughters we examine in this study do cluster together on a number of characteristics. A final point is in order here. Throughout this discussion we have treated LSF and BSL as separate languages with no significant interaction. However, during the 1700s and early 1800s some British and Irish teachers of deaf children traveled to France for training in pedagogy methodology (Woll and Sutton-Spence 2004). It is possible that borrowing occurred from Old LSF into Old BSL via these teachers. Further, Old LSF had an influence on Old ISL (Matthews 1996; Leeson 2005), and ISL has interacted with BSL (Leeson 2005). In sum, it is possible that during the history of BSL there has been minimal borrowing both directly and indirectly from (Old) LSF. At this point the existence of such borrowing is speculative, so we proceed with the widely held position that the two languages are genetically unrelated and without contact significant enough to affect their grammars.

Import of This Work

As far as we know, very little has been published in the way of  crosslinguistic studies of sign language phonetics. The present work, then, contributes to an area begging for more research; it asks questions that need to be asked, and it offers tentative answers. This study is highly descriptive and uses tools from mathematics and statistics for analysis rather than relying solely on linguistic theory. The upshot is that the methodology and findings here are potentially useful for scholars working on a broad range of sign languages who may wish to draw on it for use from various theory stances.

The analytical methods employed are new to the field of linguistics. We constructed Venn diagrams showing the set relationships of movement directions of signs using the program VennMaster, which was developed for biological research to show analogous overlaps of classes of gene transcripts. Although this innovative approach to analysis gives results that are only as reliable as the data source used, it opens possibilities for further exploration with other corpora. Additionally, this approach allowed us to explore questions that otherwise would be very difficult to explore, and it uncovered unexpected patterns, leading to fairly radical—possibly controversial—interpretations, such as the finding that diaspora languages behave differently from origin-bound languages, and such as hypotheses about young sign languages versus mature ones.

With this book, then, we hope to open new discussions in both diachronic and synchronic approaches to the linguistic typology of sign languages.

Testing Our Results

Given the innovative analytical approach employed here and the fact that our results offer unexpected hypotheses particularly with regard to historical change, our study bears a heavy burden. We therefore chose to add a sixth language to the study, one that could help us test our hypotheses concerning young sign languages and whose genetic relationship to the other languages is unstudied (as far as we know): Nicaraguan Sign Language/idioma de señas de Nicaragua (ISN), used at a school for the Deaf in Managua, Nicaragua, and established in 1977.


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