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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Pinky extension formed the subject of a recent investigation by Hoopes (1998), who studied in detail the signing of one native signer. Some signs that in citation form have a handshape in which the pinky is closed and not extended variably allow the extension of the pinky. Examples include think, lazy, and continue. Hoopes found that pinky extension seems to cooccur with the prosodic features of ASL that indicate stress. Specifically, in Hoopes’s study, pinky extension tended to occur with signs often repeated throughout a topic—before pauses and with signs lengthened to almost twice their usual duration. Neither topic nor the handshape of the preceding or following sign seemed to have a bearing on the occurrence of pinky extension. This finding parallels Lucas’s conclusion about the relative lack of importance of the location of the preceding or following sign. In both cases the phonological factors that one might assume are playing a role—location in the case of deaf and handshape in the case of pinky extension—in fact do not seem to be conditioning the variation. This is an observation that bears reexamination.

The final recent study of phonological variation we discuss here is Kleinfeld and Warner’s (1996) examination of ASL signs used to denote gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. Thirteen hearing interpreters and 12 deaf ASL users participated in the study. Kleinfeld and Warner focused on 11 lexical items and provided detailed analysis of phonological variation in two signs, lesbian and gay. The analysis showed that the variation can be correlated to some extent with external constraints such as the signer’s sexual identity (straight or gay/lesbian).

The Alternation of Fingerspelling and Lexical Signs

Blattberg et al. (1995) examined a subset of the data from the project described in this book. Specifically, they compared middle-class groups aged 15–25 and 55 and up from Frederick, Maryland, and Boston (see data from the project described in this book). They found that both groups of adolescents used fingerspelling in either full or lexicalized forms and that fingerspelling was produced in the area below the shoulder generally used for fingerspelling. The adolescents used fingerspelling primarily for proper nouns and for English terms that do not have ASL equivalents. The adults also used fingerspelling for these purposes, but their use of it also resembled the use of locative signs. In addition, Maryland adults and adolescents used fingerspelling much more frequently than their counterparts in Massachusetts.


Recently scholars have begun to investigate variation in ASL discourse. Haas, Fleetwood, and Ernest (1995) examined back channeling, turn-taking strategies, and question forms in conversations between Deaf-Blind individuals, comparing them to the same features in sighted ASL signing. They found that “in the tactile mode, Deaf-Blind signers use remarkably similar turn-taking and turn-yielding shift regulators as Deaf-sighted signers” (130). Touch is often substituted for eye-gaze, and “turn-yielding often uses a combination of dominant and nondominant hands in yielding to the addressee. The dominant hand rests and the nondominant hand moves to ‘read’ the signer’s dominant hand. Turn-claiming occurs with the dominant hand of the addressee repeatedly touching or tapping the nondominant hand of the signer until the signer yields and moves their nondominant hand to the ‘reading’ position.” In this particular study, none of the question forms found seemed unique to tactile ASL. Collins and Petronio (1998) found that for yes/no questions, nonmanual signals that in sighted ASL include the raising of the eyebrows in Deaf-Blind signing are conveyed manually as either an outward movement of the signs or a drawn question mark.

Malloy and Doner (1995) examined variation in cohesive devices in ASL discourse and explored gender differences in the use of these devices. Specifically, they looked at reiteration and expectancy chains. Reiteration is one type of lexical cohesion that “involves the repetition of a lexical item, at one end of the scale; and a number of things in between—the use of a synonym, near-synonym, or superordinate” (Halliday and Hasan 1976, 278). Expectancy chains have to do with the fact that, in discourse, certain words or phrases are expected to follow certain others. The predictability of their order creates cohesion. In their analysis of the use of reiteration and expectancy chains in the retelling of a story by two native signers (one male and one female), Malloy and Doner found that the male signer used reiteration more frequently than the female signer but that the signers were similar in their use of expectancy chains.

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