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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, and Clayton Valli
in collaboration with Mary Rose, Alyssa Wulf, Paul Dudis, Susan Schatz, and Laura Sanheim

From Chapter One: Sociolinguistic Variation and Sign Languages - A Framework for Research

The 1960s witnessed the development of two subfields in linguistics, the systematic study of language variation, pioneered by William Labov (1963, 1966), and the scientific study of sign languages, developed initially by William Stokoe (1960). The theoretical framework and rigorous methodology of Labov’s early studies on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City were soon extended to numerous other sites around the world. Research in many communities has shown that all human languages are characterized by what Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog termed orderly heterogeneity (1968, 100). That is, although variation is characteristic of all languages, it is not random. Rather, language users’ choices between variable linguistic forms are systematically constrained by multiple linguistic and social factors that reflect underlying grammatical systems. Moreover, speakers’ and signers’ choices between variable linguistic forms both reflect and partially constitute the social organization of the communities to which users of the language belong.

Like Labov’s work on linguistic variation, Stokoe’s initial work on the linguistic structure of sign languages was soon taken up by other researchers. His early monograph on sign language structure was followed by the Dictionary of American Sign Language (DASL) (Stokoe, Casterline, and Croneberg 1965). Other researchers examined the structure of American Sign Language (ASL) (e.g., Klima and Bellugi 1979; Liddell 1980), the acquisition of ASL by Deaf children (e.g., Meier and Newport 1985), as well as sociolinguistic aspects of ASL such as the differences between African American and Caucasian signing (Woodward 1976) and the effects of language contact on the production of Deaf signers (Lucas and Valli 1992). Taken together, these studies, as well as many others that we might name, established the status of ASL—and by extension other sign languages—as a fully developed language, equal to spoken languages in grammatical complexity and expressive power. However, sign language researchers have not previously availed themselves of the insights to be gained by adapting the framework and methodology of quantitative sociolinguistics to the study of ASL or any other sign language.

This book describes a large project designed to examine whether variation in ASL is subject to the same types of constraints that operate in spoken languages. In this first chapter we describe the variationist framework within which the project was conducted. To establish that framework, we first discuss general concepts in the study of variation. We then explain the overall goals of the project and provide a review of studies of variation in ASL. Finally, we discuss what we expected to discover about sociolinguistic variation in ASL at the outset of the project, based on what we already knew about variation in both spoken and sign languages.

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