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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Recent Research on Variation in ASL

In recent years the amount of research on variation in ASL and other sign languages has increased substantially. This body of work includes studies of variation at all linguistic levels, from features of individual segments to discourse units. Here we discuss representative studies of variation focusing on different linguistic levels.

Lexical Variation

The work on lexical variation in ASL is quite extensive. In addition to general studies of lexical variation such as that by Shroyer and Shroyer discussed in the previous section, the literature contains small-scale studies of various social and occupational categories, most of which were undertaken in the 1990s. Researchers have looked at gender differences (Mansfield 1993), differences in the use of signs for sexual behavior and drug use (Woodward 1979, 1980; Bridges 1993), variation related to socioeconomic status (Shapiro 1993) ), and lexical variation in the signing produced by interpreters for deaf-blind people (Collins and Petronio 1998). (Readers should note that lexical variation has been explored in sign languages other than ASL—see for example Deuchar 1984, Woll 1981, and Kyle and Woll 1985 on British Sign Language; Collins-Ahlgren 1991 on New Zealand Sign Language; Schermer 1990 on Dutch Sign Language; Boyes-Braem 1985 on Swiss German Sign Language and Swiss French Sign Language; Radutzky 1992 on Italian Sign Language; LeMaster 1990 on Irish Sign Language; Yau and He 1990 on Chinese Sign Language; and Campos 1994 on Brazilian Sign Language).

Phonological Variation

Variation at the phonological level has received considerable attention in recent years. Metzger (1993), for example, looked at variation in the handshape of second- and third-person pronouns, which can be produced either with the index finger or with an S handshape with the thumb extended. Metzger’s data yielded one example of the thumb variant and one unexpected variant—the fingerspelled pronoun s-h-e. There is some indication that the sign that precedes the thumb variant, ago, with its extended thumb, may play a role in the occurrence of the thumb variant.

Lucas (1995) studied variation in location in deaf. In its citation form (that is, the form of the sign that appears in sign language dictionaries and is most commonly taught to second-language learners), the 1 handshape moves from a location just below the ear to a location on the lower cheek near the mouth. However, this sign is commonly produced with movement from the chin location to the ear location or simply with one contact on the lower cheek. Observation might suggest that the final location of the sign (chin or ear) would be governed by the location of the preceding or following sign, so that deaf in the phrase deaf father might be signed from chin to ear because the location of the following sign is the forehead, higher than the ear. Similarly, in deaf pride, one might expect that deaf would be signed from ear to chin because the sign that follows deaf begins below the chin.

Contrary to what we might expect, Lucas’s analysis (based on 486 examples produced by native signers in both formal and informal settings) using the VARBRUL statistical program (described in chapter 2) indicated that the location of the following and preceding signs did not have a significant effect on the choice of a variant of deaf. Rather, the key factor is the syntactic function of the sign itself, with adjectives being most commonly signed from chin to ear or as a simple contact on the cheek, and predicates and nouns being signed from ear to chin. Lucas’s 1995 study is the foundation for the analysis of deaf in chapter 4.


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