Part One continued...
Research into the prosodic structure of ASL illustrates this point. For example, Grosjean (1979) demonstrated that phrase-final lengthening, universally found in spoken languages, is also found in ASL. Later Coulter (I993) demonstrated lengthening before phrase and sentence boundaries. He also demonstrated a hand-height contour in certain phrases (i.e., listing of numerals), which peaks at the position of the stressed sign. This is analogous to phrase-level accents in spoken languages that form the inflection points of phrase-level intonation patterns. Coulter (1990) presented evidence that, just as in spoken languages, the phonetic correlates of emphatic stress in ASL are predictable from the notion of greater articulatory effort. Finally, a number of researchers have suggested that ASL phonological segments are grouped into basic prosodic units analogous to syllables of spoken languages (Coulter 1992, 1990; Liddell 1984; Perlmutter 1993; Wilbur 1992).
A description of the phonology of ASL, including phonological variation, also informs our understanding of sociolinguistic phenomena. It has been demonstrated for spoken languages that minute phonological variations can have far-reaching social consequences, the variations being used by members of a linguistic community to mark group identity, group solidarity, and social distance and also to define the social environment (Fasold 1984). The question becomes whether this obtains in the Deaf community, which Padden and Humphries (1988) describe as a distinct cultural and linguistic group that coexists with American culture. They detail the striking differences of this community from the culture of hearing Americans due to their unique education, language, interaction with authority figures, and comparative lack of access to radio, TV, and English language print media. Thus one would expect phonological variations in the signing of members of this community to correlate with social factors.
Several researchers have examined this issue in signed languages. Zimmer (1989) and Roy (1989) both describe variation at all levels of ASL as a function of the formality of the social context. Others describe lexical variation related to ethnic background (Aramburo 1989; Woodward and DeSantis 1977; and Woodward and Erting 1975). Further, Lucas and Valli (1992) describe in-depth morphological, lexical, and syntactic features that vary between ASL and a type of signing used by Deaf signers in particular situations known as "contact sign." (For a review of variation studies in ASL, see Lucas I995.)
The full sociolinguistic consequences of PE are beyond the scope of this study. However, a description of this variable in individual signing styles as well as suggestions of possible social constraints, are the first steps of such inquiry.
The subject for this study was a fifty-five-year-old Deaf woman whom I will refer to as Helen. Born in eastern Kentucky, Helen was deafened in infancy as the result of spinal meningitis. She was the only Deaf person of her immediate family.
Helen attended the Kentucky School for the Deaf (KSD) in Danville, Kentucky, for all of her primary and secondary education. Because of the distance of KSD from her home, she lived in the dormitory throughout her education at KSD. After graduation, she attended Gallaudet College for two years and then moved to the Midwest to marry a KSD classmate.