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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Table 1.1 provides a comparison of variability in spoken and sign languages. We can see that, at this point, we can expect to find the same kinds of variability in sign languages that pertain to spoken languages. Specifically, the features of the individual segments of signs can vary. In spoken languages, a vowel may become nasalized or a consonant may be devoiced, for example. In sign languages, the handshape, the location, and the palm orientation may vary. Pinky extension and thumb extension in 1 handshape signs (pro.1 ‘i,’ black, funny) are examples of handshape variation, while signs such as know and suppose provide examples of location variation because they can be produced at points below the forehead. Individual segments may be deleted or added. Spoken languages do this with consonant cluster reduction at the ends of words such as west or find, pronounced as wes’ and fin’. In sign languages, movement segments may be added between holds (as in the phrase mother study), or hold segments may be deleted between movements (as in the phrase good idea). Groups of segments (i.e., syllables) can be deleted. The English words because and supposed (to) are sometimes pronounced as ’cause and ’posed to. The first element of a sign compound, such as white in the compound sign white^fall (‘snow’) is often deleted. In fact, many signers are not even aware that the first element is part of the standard form.

Other processes are also involved in variation. Parts of segments, segments, or syllables can be re-arranged. English speakers sometimes pronounce the word hundred as hunderd, for example. In sign languages this same process can be seen in the location feature of deaf. That is, the sign may begin at the ear and end at the chin or vice versa. Everything else about the sign is the same, but the location feature is rearranged. And there can of course be variation in word-sized morphemes, otherwise known as lexical variation, and in combinations of word-sized morphemes (i.e., syntactic variation). As mentioned, variation has also been described in bigger units, that is, in the units of discourse. The one kind of variation that we have not seen in sign languages yet is coalescence, whereby a new segment is created from the features of other segments. We see this in English, for example, when the sound sh is created by the interaction between s and y in the sentence ‘I miss you.’ Frequently in conversation, sh is created and the original segments disappear.

In addition, although we assumed that syntactic variation exists, we were not certain at the beginning of our study what it would look like. Woodward (described earlier) claimed that there was variation in three syntactic rules (what he referred to as agent-beneficiary agreement, verb reduplication, and negative incorporation). However, the data upon which the claim is based combine the signing of native and non-native signers. In our chapter on syntactic variation, we describe the syntactic variation that we see on the data tapes with a particular focus on variable subject presence with plain verbs. Variable subject presence is of particular interest because, in addition to the many verbs in ASL in which the pronominal information is incorporated into the structure of the verb (as in give or flatter), there are many so-called plain verbs (Padden 1988) such as like or know that would seem to require the production of separate signs for subject and object. However, as mentioned earlier, ASL seems to be a “pro-drop” language, that is, the subject and object pronouns that accompany plain verbs seem to be variably deleted. We explore this deletion and try to discover what governs it.

Finally, in considering what kinds of units can be variable, we have noticed two kinds of variability that seem to be artifacts of a language produced with two identical articulators (i.e., two hands as opposed to one tongue). That is, sign languages allow the deletion, addition, or substitution of one of the two articulators. Two-handed signs become one-handed (cat, cow), one-handed signs become two-handed (die), and a table, chair arm, or the signer’s thigh may be substituted for the base hand in a two-handed sign with identical handshapes (right, school). In addition, one-handed signs that the signer usually produces with the dominant hand (i.e., the right hand, if the signer is right-handed) can be signed with the nondominant hand. Variation is also allowed in the relationship between articulators, as in help, produced with an A handshape placed in the upward-turned palm of the base hand. Both hands can move forward as a unit, or the base hand can lightly tap the bottom of the A handshape hand.

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