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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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In the present volume, Rachel McKee, David McKee, Kirsten Smiler, and Karen Pointon address contact between deaf and hearing people by discussing how, within an ethnic minority, the hearing members can affect the expression of identity by the deaf users of a sign language. Approximately 40 percent of the deaf users of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) have cultural and historical ties to the indigenous Māori culture. However, their deafness has historically precluded them from participation in Maori cultural events and activities. In recent years, the New Zealand deaf population with ties to Maori culture has begun to learn more about the minority culture, including its languagebased references. This learning has resulted in an increase in the number of signs that are used in NZSL for references to Māori cultural concepts. However, the situation, which McKee et al. carefully describe, is far from simple inasmuch as the negotiation of new lexical elements by deaf Māori, hearing Māori, and trilingual (Māori, English, and NZSL) interpreters creates a complex interplay that is the perfect setting for a discussion of signed language contact.

Addressing Lexical Similarities between Sign Languages

Several studies that have compared lexical items across sign languages generally agree that sign languages are lexically more similar to each other than are spoken languages. Although this may not be a result of contact between sign languages, some researchers have investigated the likelihood of historical contact (e.g., McKee and Kennedy 2000; Davis, this volume). Higher degrees of lexical similarity clearly hold even for languages that are unrelated and whose users live in very disparate parts of the world. As a result, these works raise questions about the role of visual iconicity in the development of sign languages and in the comparison of sign lexicons.

A high degree of lexical similarity has been observed in comparisons of various European sign languages with Chinese and Israeli sign languages (Woll 1984); comparisons of North American sign languages (ASL and Mexican Sign Language [LSM]) with two from Europe (French and Spanish sign languages) and one from East Asia (Japanese Sign Language [JSL]; Guerra Currie, Meier, and Walters 2002); and comparisons of Spanish Sign Language with the sign languages of Northern Ireland, Finland, and Bulgaria (Parkhurst and Parkhurst 2003). These works provide a snapshot of the lexical characteristics of sign languages from around the globe.

There is some debate, however, about the degree of similarity. In a comparison of pairs of twelve sign languages, Woll (1984) found that no pair had a similarity score of less than 40 percent, and some pairs showed 80 percent similarity. In their analysis of four different sign languages (Mexican, Spanish, French, and Japanese), Guerra Currie et al. claimed that even unrelated sign languages (i.e., those between which no known contact has occurred and which are embedded in hearing cultures that are very different from each other, e.g., Mexican and Japanese sign languages) show modest degrees of lexical similarity. In fact, the authors found that 23 percent of the selected sign lexicons of LSM and JSL were similarly articulated. Guerra Currie et al. suggest, as have other writers, that there likely exists a base level of similarity between the lexicons of all signed languages regardless of the existence of any historical ties. According to them, this base level of similarity may be 20 percent or more.

Parkhurst and Parkhurst (2003) focus on the importance of separating noniconic signs from those that could be interpreted iconically in interlingual lexical comparisons. They looked at four European sign languages (from Spain, Northern Ireland, Finland, and Bulgaria), as well as different dialects of the sign language of Spain (from Madrid, La Coruña, Granada, Valencia, and Barcelona). Among their conclusions is a recommendation for higher thresholds for determining relatedness between sign languages. What likely contributes to varying estimates of lexical similarity is that different authors have not always used the same criteria for their analyses. Despite that, it has clearly been shown that even unrelated sign languages have some lexical similarities, which is likely a result of the iconic nature of some signs.

In a comparison of the sign languages of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, McKee and Kennedy (2000) have demonstrated that ASL is very different, at least lexically, from the varieties that have connections to nineteenth-century British Sign Language (BSL). This is true in spite of the claim that ASL may have been influenced somewhat by BSL of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries as a result of the sign language used on Martha’s Vineyard, which likely influenced the development of ASL. According to Groce (1985, 73), the “sign language used on the Vineyard seems to have had a considerable time depth and thus may have been based on an English sign language.”

Two works in the present volume add to our knowledge of sign language histories by comparing signs from different sign languages. Jeff Davis takes a long overdue look at the signs used by Native Americans of North America during the beginning and development of ASL. Davis first compares signs used by various tribes and, based on an 80 to 90 percent degree of lexical similarity across the systems, concludes that they are variants of a single variety of North American Sign Language — what he refers to as Plains Indians Sign Language (PSL). Additionally, Davis compares PSL to early twentieth-century ASL. That comparison yields about a 50 percent lexical similarity, which, according to the metrics for lexical comparison proposed by Parkhurst and Parkhurst (2003), suggests that PSL and ASL are different languages but may have items that were borrowed from one language to the other in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Davis also provides some interesting accounts taken from the writings of nineteenth-century educators such as Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and those writings offer valuable information about possible contact and influence between the two North American sign languages.


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