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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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In summary, research undertaken since the 1960s has provided us with a great deal of information about variable phenomena in ASL and other sign languages, and advances in our understanding of sign language structure have enabled us to define variable forms in a more precise manner. We have gained some idea of the geographic distribution of lexical items and the ways in which social factors such as ethnicity and sexual orientation are likely to influence a signer’s choice of a lexical variant. The literature also contains a number of detailed studies of variation at different linguistic levels. As we have noted, however, most of the studies undertaken to date have been rather small-scale, and, aside from Lucas (1995), not many have taken full advantage of the methods and theoretical insights that quantitative sociolinguistics offers, in some cases simply because these methods and insights were not available for earlier studies. The result is that, although we have sufficient evidence to suggest that variation in ASL and other sign languages is systematic and subject to multiple internal and external constraints, we lack a sufficient basis for comparing variation in spoken and sign languages or for comparing variation in ASL as used by signers of diverse social categories in different regions. This study draws upon previous work on the sociolinguistics of sign languages as well as recent theoretical proposals about the nature of sign language structure that have a direct bearing on the identification and description of variables and constraints. These two strands of research, combined with the extensive body of work on variation in spoken languages, inform the current study, which systematically examines variation in ASL as used in representative Deaf communities in seven regions of the United States.

In the following section we consider in more detail the nature of linguistic variables and constraints in both spoken and sign languages.

Variables and Constraints

In this section we first summarize current knowledge about variables and constraints in spoken languages. We begin by describing the kinds of units that can vary in spoken languages. 

Linguists generally accept that spoken languages are composed of segments of sound produced by the vocal apparatus and that these segments are themselves composed of a variety of features. In spoken languages whole segments or features of segments may be variable. For example, a final voiced consonant in a word may be devoiced, a non-nasal vowel may acquire the feature of nasalization, and vowels may vary from their canonical position and be raised or lowered within the vowel space.

A new segment may also be created from the features of other segments, as often happens in palatalization. Individual segments may be variably added or deleted, and syllables (i.e., groups of segments) can be added or deleted. Parts of segments, whole segments, or groups of segments can also be variably rearranged, as we see with metathesis in English. It is also important to note that variable whole segments may be bound morphemes. For example, the sound [t] that can be variably deleted when it occurs in word-final consonant clusters, as in the word “missed” [mIst], is also a past-tense morpheme. What is variably deleted in this case is not simply a segment, but a morphemic segment.

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