Variation in American Sign Language
Word-sized combinations of segments and combinations of words are also variable. is With lexical variation we see variation in word-sized segments, where separate morphemes denote the same concept, and use of these separate morphemes correlates with region, ethnicity, gender, and other nonlinguistic categories. But we may also see syntactic variation characterized by the deletion of whole morphemes or by the variable position of whole morphemes.
We also see variation in units of discourse (i.e., units consisting of many words), as in variation in text type or in lists used in narratives (Schiffrin 1994). We see, then, that what varies in spoken languages may range from the features of a segment to a discourse unit that consists of many segments, from the very smallest unit we can identify to the largest.
We can then talk about the kinds of processes that are involved in spoken language variation. Our discussion here takes its departure from Wolfram’s (1991) work on variation in spoken languages. One set of processes involved in variation has to do with the phonological component of a language. For example, variation may be the result of the process of assimilation, such as vowel nasalization or consonant gemination. Variation may result from weakening, as in vowel or consonant deletion. We may see variation resulting from the processes of substitution or addition of elements, as with coalescence (the creation of a new segment from two other segments), metathesis (the re-arranging of the order of segments or features of segments), or epenthesis (the addition of a segment). Variation may result from analogy, as in the generalization of third-person singular –s to all present-tense forms of an English verb, or conversely, the deletion of third-person singular –s by analogy with all other verb forms in a given paradigm.
Other processes involved with variation may have to do with the morphosyntactic structure of a language. For example, variation may have to do with the process of the cooccurrence of items in syntactic structure. Negative concord in English is one example, whereby some varieties allow the cooccurrence of more than one negative element while other varieties disallow such cooccurrence. Another process involved in variation at the syntactic level concerns the permutation of items within sentences. The variable placement of English adverbs is a well-known example.
This brings us to a consideration of the internal constraints on spoken-language variation. Recall that internal constraints on variation are features within the immediate linguistic environment that may influence a language user’s choice of one or another variable form. Wolfram (1991) states that the internal constraints on variables may be compositional, sequential, functional, or the result of structural incorporation. Compositional constraints have to do with the linguistic nature of the variable itself. For example, Wolfram (1989) studied final nasal absence in the speech of three-year-old African American children. He found that final alveolar nasals were much more likely to be absent than either velar or bilabial nasals. A sequential constraint has to do with the role of an element occurring in the same sequence as the variable, either preceding or following it. For example, the final consonant in a word-final consonant cluster is more likely to be deleted if the following segment is another consonant than if it is a vowel. Functional constraints, also known as grammatical category constraints, relate to the linguistic function of the variable. For example, as explained in the preceding paragraph, the final consonant in a word-final consonant cluster may function as a past-tense morpheme. Finally, the constraint of structural incorporation has to do with the syntactic environment in which a variable occurs. For example, copula deletion in AAVE is more likely in a construction with gonna (e.g., He’s gonna do it/He Ø gonna do it) than in one in which the copula is followed by a noun phrase (e.g., He’s my brother/He Ø my brother.)