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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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External constraints on variation include demographic factors such as region, age, race, gender, and socioeconomic level, all factors that have been shown to covary with linguistic factors. Covariance here means that a correlation can be observed between the behavior of a linguistic factor and social factors. For example, working-class speakers may exhibit a greater incidence of the use of a variable than middle-class speakers. African American speakers may use a particular variable less frequently than Caucasian speakers. These correlations capture the sociolinguistic nature of the variation. Earlier studies of both spoken and sign languages focused on a fairly limited inventory of demographic factors such as those listed earlier. However, as Wolfram points out, more recent studies have focused on the nature of communication networks (L. Milroy 1980), the dynamics of situational context (Biber and Finegan 1993), and the projection of social identity (LePage and Tabouret-Keller 1985) “in an effort to describe more authentically the social reality of dialect in society” (Wolfram 1997, 116). That is, researchers have realized that the external constraints on variation are more complex than they thought. They may be more discrete factors such as region and socioeconomic level, but other factors such as who a person interacts with on a daily basis and a person’s desire to project a particular identity to others may also play a central role in constraining variation.

What We Expected to Find Based on What We Knew

We can now turn our attention to what we expected to find in our analysis of the data based on what we knew about variation in both spoken and sign languages. First we consider the kinds of linguistic units we expect to be variable in sign languages.

Table 1.1. Variability in Spoken and Sign Languages

Variable Unit



Spoken Languages

Sign Languages

Features of individual segments

Final consonant devoicing, vowel nasalization, vowel raising and lowering


Change in location, movement, orientation, handshape in one or more segments of a sign

Individual segments deleted or added


-t,d deletion, -s deletion, epenthetic vowels and consonants

Hold deletion, movement epenthesis, hold epenthesis

Syllables (i.e., groups of segments) added or deleted

Aphesis, apocope, syncope

First or second element of a compound deleted

Part of segment, segments, or syllables rearranged



Variation in word-sized morphemes or combinations of word-sized morphemes (i.e., syntactic variation)

Copula deletion, negative concord, avoir/ętre alternation, lexical variation

Null pronoun variation, lexical variation

Variation in discourse units

Text types, lists

Repetition, expectancy chains, deaf/blind discourse, turn taking, back channeling, questions

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