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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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Interference is also treated in my own work (Quinto-Pozos 2002, 2008). The analyses focus primarily on the phonological parameter of handshape, the LSM and ASL nonmanual signals that are used for wh-question formation, and the mouthing that sometimes accompanies signed language production. The data indicate that signers, like users of spoken language, exhibit features of interference when they articulate items from their nonnative language. For example, a signer who grew up in Mexico signing LSM might sign ASL family with an LSM F handshape rather than an ASL F handshape. The two handshapes are similar, but they differ in the contact between thumb and index finger and also in the amount of spread between the nonselected fingers (i.e., the middle and ring fingers and the pinky). In terms of mouthing, signers from Mexico sometimes produce ASL signs while simultaneously mouthing Spanish words, although the production of LSM with English mouthing is also a common linguistic practice of some signers who live along the border. In most cases, whether such interference is always predictable based on the profile of the signer is unclear.

In terms of the creation of mixed systems as a result of contact, it is vital to include discussion of IS, a “type of signing used when deaf signers communicate across mutually unintelligible language boundaries” (Supalla and Webb 1995, 334). Deaf individuals who interact with each other, primarily at international gatherings, use IS for communication. As a result, IS could be said to be “foreigner talk.” There do not appear to be native users of IS, which is employed only for restricted purposes. In these ways IS resembles spoken language pidgins, but Supalla and Webb suggest that it is much more structurally complex than spoken pidgins; in some ways IS more closely resembles full-fledged sign languages than pidgin languages.

The complexity of IS has been described in terms of the rule-governed nature of its syntactic structure and various features of its vocabulary. For example, Supalla and Webb (1995) claim that verb agreement, word order, and negation in IS are systematic and rule governed. They report that verbs are frequently inflected and in complex ways. The word order of IS is usually SVO, but it can also be described in terms of other structures in which pro-drop and object function account for the surface structure of the phrases. With regard to negation, Supalla and Webb (ibid., 346–47) claim that a signer of IS appears to use “a limited number of negative devices similar in structure and form to those used in full signed languages.” In a more recent work, Rosenstock (2004) looks closely at the structure of IS and finds that it is indeed more complex than one would expect from a pidgin language. Rosenstock also reports that IS contains highly iconic signs, as well as more arbitrary ones that may be loans from full sign languages. By describing a number of grammatical and otherwise communicative devices used in IS, Rosenstock shows that IS contains an “extremely complex grammatical system with a rather limited lexicon” (212). Comprehension tasks conducted during Rosenstock’s study show that IS is more easily understood than natural sign languages (for people who do not know those languages), but a significant amount of information is nevertheless not transparent to the viewer. Additionally, Rosenstock reports that there even seem to be differences between how interpreters and presenters produce IS. McKee and Napier (2002) also address IS, as produced by interpreters at a conference, and corroborate earlier research that claims that IS is structurally complex. In the present volume, Karin Hoyer also discusses IS.

In another study that is included in this volume, Yoel reports an unfortunate outcome of language contact. She focuses on the attrition of Russian Sign Language (RSL) in several individuals who immigrated to Israel and subsequently learned Israeli Sign Language (ISL). The data are taken from Yoel’s master’s thesis, which was completed in 2001. In the current volume, Yoel examines the situation of Russian Deaf immigrants to Israel from both linguistic and nonlinguistic perspectives. An analysis of language data obtained through two lexical naming tests yields evidence of attrition of RSL, which is attributed to influence from ISL. To understand the causes of attrition, Yoel adopts the social psychology framework of ethnolinguistic vitality as she examines various facets of the lives of the deaf immigrants to Israel. These analyses consider the situations in both Israel and the former Soviet Union. Her conclusions suggest that the attrition of RSL is linked to the types of opportunities that are encountered by Russian deaf immigrants in Israel.

Finally, language death has also been suggested, albeit minimally, to result from contact between sign languages. Much of this contact is a result of the work of foreign missionaries, foreign instructors, and even deaf people from those countries who have learned ASL and other Western sign languages and returned to their own country. Woodward (2000) claims that indigenous sign languages of Southeast Asia seem to be dying out and are apparently being replaced by signed languages in- fluenced by ASL or French Sign Language (LSF). Many sign languages that are used in Africa have undergone significant contact with ASL (Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996), although there are also suggestions that even that contact is not threatening the existence of the natural sign language. Schmaling (2001) suggests that ASL in contact with Hausa Sign Language (HSL) in northern Nigeria has resulted in the appearance of some ASL forms in HSL (e.g., loan signs and the use of the manual alphabet for the creation of initialized signs). Despite that, Schmaling indicates that some HSL users have little contact with native signers of ASL and that the influence of ASL on HSL remains limited. Her prognosis is that “Hausa Sign Language will survive as an independent, full-fledged sign language” (192).

That optimistic outlook, however, may not be shared by Nonaka (2004) in her account of indigenous sign languages of Thailand. In particular, she writes of the need to remember sign languages in discussions of language endangerment and in language preservation efforts. Nonaka discusses indigenous varieties of sign language in Thailand such as Ban Khor Sign Language and those referred to as Old Bangkok and Old Chiangmai sign varieties. Whereas the national sign language, Thai Sign Language, seems to be thriving, according to Nonaka, the future of the indigenous varieties is uncertain. It is clear that language contact can result not only in the creation of new varieties but also in the drastic alteration or destruction of others.


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