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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Diachronic Variation

Any review of research on variation in ASL must also include Frishberg’s 1976 study of historical development in ASL signs. Frishberg compared signs from earlier stages of ASL and from French Sign Language with present-day usage in ASL to demonstrate that changes have occurred in sign formation. Although Frishberg’s study is usually viewed as a historical study, it pertains directly to the study of variation in ASL for two related reasons, one general and one specific. The general reason is that historical change manifests itself first in the form of variation. That is, historical change does not occur from one day to the next. Rather, it normally begins as variation, that is, with “different ways of saying the same thing,” and those ways may involve sounds, parts of signs, or grammatical structures coexisting within the language of an individual or community. As mentioned earlier, the focus of variation studies is what Weinreich et al. called “orderly heterogeneity” (i.e., a heterogeneity that is not random but rather is governed by internal and external constraints). Moreover, as James Milroy remarked, “In the study of linguistic change, this heterogeneity of language is of crucial importance, as change in progress can be detected in the study of variation” (1992, 1). In some cases, the variation may become stabilized and continue indefinitely, while in other cases it eventually gives way to the use of one form to the exclusion of the other (or others) in question. Viewed across the broad landscape of history, it may be difficult to see the variation that gives rise to large-scale historical changes, such as the change from Old English to Middle English to Modern English or the changes in Romance languages as they developed from Latin. However, a closer look reveals that change does not happen suddenly and that the transition from one period to the next is characterized by considerable synchronic variation. We expect this to be the case for sign languages as well. In addition, we suspect that the historical changes that Frishberg described first manifested themselves as synchronic variation.

The second reason for the pertinence of Frishberg’s study to the study of variation is that the processes resulting in the historical change that Frishberg described are still operative in the language today. Therefore, an understanding of the processes involved in language change will help us predict what kind of variation we can expect to find in our data:

Signs which were previously made in contact with the face using two hands now use one, whereas those which have changed from one-handed articulation to two-handed are made without contact on the face or head. Signs, which use two hands, tend to become symmetrical with respect to the shape and movement of the two hands. . . . As part of a general trend away from more “gross” movement and handshapes toward finer articulation, we find the introduction of new movement distinctions in particular signs, the reduction of compound forms to single sign units, a decreased reliance on the face, eyes, mouth, and body as articulators, and a new context-dependent definition of “neutral” orientation. (1976, xvii)


Frishberg also found that (1) the signs that change from two hands to one are also typically displaced (i.e., change their location from the center of the face and/or from contact with the sense organs to the periphery of the face); and (2) signs that change from one hand to two hands tend to centralize by moving toward what Frishberg called the line of bilateral symmetry (an imaginary line that runs vertically down the center of the signer’s head and torso) and up toward the hollow of the neck. These findings help direct our analysis and determine what to look for. They are also important because they are described as examples of historical change in ASL. The examples of historical change are particularly relevant to the research described in this volume because our data reveal variation between two-handed and one-handed versions of signs, between centralized and noncentralized versions, and between displaced and nondisplaced versions. It appears that some aspects of what Frishberg characterized as historical change, implying perhaps that the change was complete, may be better characterized as change in progress.

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