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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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Language contact phenomena are as complex as the linguistic repertoires and social situations of the individuals and communities who engage in contact between languages or language varieties. Moreover, there are many lenses through which to examine language contact. One could focus on the social aspect — taking into consideration issues such as prestige, power, and social class, which influence what languages or language varieties are acceptable in any given situation. Alternatively, one could zoom in the linguistic microscope to examine the numerous and sometimes overlapping types of influences languages exert on one another. Some of these commonly discussed topics are borrowings and loans, interference, convergence, transference, bilingualism, code switching, foreigner talk, language shift, language attrition, and even language decline and death. Keep in mind that these and other frequently used terms are, at times, defined in different ways by different authors. In addition to these topics, some researchers focus on the emergence of new varieties of language (e.g., pidgins and creoles) that arise in contact situations. Some authors focus on lexical items, whereas others address grammatical matters. Those who work on bilingualism could consider the subject at the level of the individual or the community (i.e., societal bilingualism).

The result of significant interest in the topic of language contact — as reflected in the spoken language literature — has been the development of a sizeable and still growing corpus of examples of contact data. In most cases, this reflects contact between languages that are centuries old, although there might also be work on younger varieties such as pidgins and creoles. This is worth noting because many sign languages do not have the long histories of development that characterize spoken language varieties. Furthermore, examples of spoken language contact enable us to examine interactions between structurally similar languages, as well as those that are substantially different from one another. That level of linguistic diversity may not entirely be the case with sign language contact.


Perhaps the most-studied aspect of signed language contact has been the way in which sign languages interact with spoken and/or written languages. The degree of lexical similarity between various sign languages has also been extensively studied, and this is arguably an area of inquiry that is relevant to the study of contact. In particular, lexical comparisons can be useful when considering contact phenomena, although they present the challenge of addressing the role of visual iconicity in the development of sign lexicons. A smaller percentage of works have addressed issues such as the effects of contact between two sign languages, the use of International Sign (IS) by deaf people from various countries, and language attrition and/or death that result, in part, from contact.

Contact between Signed and Spoken/Written Languages

Some of the earliest writings on contact between English and American Sign Language (ASL) conceptualized the phenomenon as influencing the creation of language varieties that were labeled Pidgin Sign English (PSE) (Woodward 1973b), but a possible diglossic situation in the American Deaf community was also suggested (Stokoe 1970; Woodward 1973a). The label PSE seems to have come about because of the ways in which the purported intermediate varieties of language use, along a continuum of ASL and English at either end, show “reduction and mixture of grammatical structures of both languages as well as some new structures that are common to neither of the languages” (Woodward 1973b, 40). For instance, Woodward identified the variable uses of various structures such as articles, plural markers, and the copula — none of which are common to both English and ASL. That variable use was what Woodward and others referred to as PSE — a label that has continued to be used, at least in some circles, until the present day.

However, over the years, various authors have pointed out that, in several ways, PSE does not seem to resemble spoken language pidgins. For instance, Cokely (1983), by looking at ways in which deaf people interact with hearing people, argued in favor of an analysis that labeled such language use as instances of foreigner talk, judgments of proficiency, and ASL learners’ attempts to master the target language. Lucas and Valli (1992) isolated and listed features of both ASL and English in the signing of various informants included in their dyad- and triad-based data. Their analysis suggested that the term contact signing was a more appropriate label for varieties of sign language that combine features of ASL and English and exhibit significant individual variation in terms of the occurrence of features. They also pointed out that, despite the individual variation, some linguistic features from ASL and English seldom occur in contact signing, such as ASL nonmanual syntactic markers that occur with topicalization and various bound morphemes from English (e.g., plural -s, third-person singular -s, possessive ’s, past tense -ed, or comparative -er). Fischer (1996) also pointed out that the alleged pidgin, PSE, is the opposite of what is typically found in spoken language pidgins since its vocabulary comes from the substrate (ASL), whereas its grammar comes from the superstrate (English).

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