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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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The work of Lucas and Valli (1992) represents one of the first extensive discussions of various facets of language contact in and around a Deaf community and was preceded by shorter works on the subject (e.g., Lucas and Valli 1988, 1989, 1991). In their writings, these authors discuss several possible outcomes of contact between a signed and a spoken language, but they are careful to distinguish between those contact phenomena that have parallels in spoken language contact and those that are unique to contact between a signed and a spoken language. They maintain that the latter can be found in fingerspelling, fingerspelling/sign combinations, mouthing, CODA-speak, TTY conversations, code switching, and contact signing (which they also termed code mixing). Lucas and Valli also suggest that code switching can occur between sign and spoken/written language as well, but the main difference when addressing it in the signed modality is that the simultaneous use of devices from both modalities (e.g., signs from the visual-gestural modality, along with mouth movements — and perhaps even vocalizations — from the auditory-oral modality) allows for simultaneous combinations of various linguistic devices from both languages. This differs from the most common form of spoken language code switching, in which the switching primarily takes place sequentially.

Lucas and Valli (1992) also make several other important points. First, the simultaneous or sequential use of ASL and English forms in a signed segment makes it very difficult to determine whether the signer is actually code-switching or simply borrowing elements from one language and using them in another. As a result, they suggest the use of a third term, contact signing, to describe the result of frequent contact between ASL and English.2 In their other main themes, the authors discuss issues that arise when one investigates language use by individuals, communities, and societies. One of their suggestions is that the locus of study for contact situations should really be the behavior of the individual, although they also claim that the occurrence of many ASL and English features of contact signing cannot be predicted solely by this method. In other words, one cannot predict which features of contact signing an “average” member of the Deaf community will use in any given situation. Yet, despite the unpredictable nature of an individual’s signing in a specific situation, the authors were able to identify various common features of contact signing at the lexical, morphological, and syntactic levels. As a final note, Lucas and Valli remind the reader that, inasmuch as contact situations are dynamic rather than static, a similar perspective for the analysis of contact situations is necessary. Such a standpoint would take into account the fact that language behavior can change rapidly based on both the interlocutor and the linguistic background of the language user.

The code switching that some deaf users of ASL and Cued Speech engage in has also been viewed as a form of contact between ASL and English.3 In this system, consonant and vowel sounds are represented by the hands, and, in theory, any spoken language can be cued. Hauser (2000) describes the signing of a ten-year-old girl who is fluent in both ASL and Cued English and gives examples of how she code-switches between the two forms of manual communication.

Fingerspelling has also been viewed as one of the products of contact between a signed and a spoken or written language, although some researchers highlight the ways in which fingerspelling has been incorporated into the signed language, while others describe it as more of a foreign element that lies outside the core lexicon. Taking the former viewpoint, Battison (1978) addressed the manner in which some fingerspelled words become lexicalized over time, and Akamatsu (1985) stated that fingerspelled words form “articulatory envelopes” that resemble signs in some ways. Davis (1989, 97) also suggests that fingerspelling is, by its nature, an ASL phonological event — not an example of borrowing — because, as he maintains, “ASL morphemes are never borrowed from the orthographic English event; they are simply used to represent [emphasis in the original] the orthographic event.” Other researchers have also discussed the manner in which fingerspelled items can form compounds with ASL signs (Brentari and Padden 2001; Padden 1998), the suggestion that fingerspelling can be viewed as code switching between ASL and written English (Kuntze 2000), and the claim that fingerspelling can also be considered a form of borrowing (Miller 2001).

Another characteristic of contact between a signed and a spoken language is the mouthing of spoken words while producing signs. Several authors have addressed this phenomenon with data from ASL and English (Davis 1989, 1990), Swiss German Sign Language and German (Boyes Braem 2001), and other European sign languages (see Ann 2001 for a brief discussion of relevant works). In addition, a number of authors have described code switching and code mixing between a signed and a spoken language. For instance, researchers have looked at the manner in which code switching, as a function of the language background and use of the interlocutor, is performed by deaf adults (Hoffmeister and Moores 1987; Lee 1983) and deaf children (Kachman 1991).


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