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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Expectations of Variable Processes

Table 1.2 shows that the same kinds of processes that pertain to spoken language variation also pertain to sign language variation: assimilation, weakening, substitution and addition, and analogy. We see assimilation, for example, when a 1 handshape in pro.1 (first-person pronoun, ‘I’) becomes an open 8 handshape in the phrase pro.1 prefer (‘I prefer’). We see weakening when holds are deleted or when a two-handed sign becomes one-handed, as in cat or cow. Substitution occurs when a table top or the signer’s knee is substituted for the base hand of a two-handed sign or in the version of deaf that begins at the chin and moves to the ear, as opposed to beginning at the ear and moving to the chin. Addition occurs when movements are added between holds. Finally, the process of analogy takes place when a one-handed sign becomes two-handed.

Table 1.2. Variable Processes in ASL: Expected Findings








Vowel harmony, consonant harmony, gemination, nasalization


Assimilation in handshape, location, orientation




Deletion: CC reduction, haplology aphesis, syncope, apocope; vowel reduction


Hold deletion; deletion of one articulator; deletion of first or second element of a compound


Substitution, addition


Coalescence, metathesis, epenthesis


Metathesis; epenthetic movement; substitute hand base




3rd person sing. -s


Add second hand to 1-handed sign


Concerning morphosyntactic structures:

Cooccurrence relations


Negative concord


Possibly nonmanual signals


Item permutation

Adverb placement

Possibly placement of interrogative words

In terms of morphosyntactic variation, we expected to find variation in cooccurrence relations, as found in spoken languages. Recall the example of the cooccurrence of negative items for spoken English. In some varieties of American English, a sentence such as “Ain’t nobody seen nothing like that before,” with three negative items cooccurring, is acceptable, while the sentence “No one has seen anything like that before,” with only one negative element, is preferable in other varieties. We are not exactly sure what variable cooccurrence relations might look like in ASL, but a possible candidate for investigation is the cooccurrence of nonmanual signals with lexical signs or with morphological or syntactic units. For example, must a given nonmanual signal such as the mouth configuration in not-yet cooccur with the manual sign? Is there any variation in the morphological and syntactic nonmanual signals that occur with manual adverbs and sentences? Another kind of morphosyntactic variation concerns the fact that certain items, such as adverbs in English, can occur in different positions in a sentence. The adverb quickly, for example, can occur as follows: Quickly John ran to the door; John quickly ran to the door; John ran quickly to the door; John ran to the door quickly. Again, item permutation in ASL, and specifically the placement in sentences and the repetition of interrogative signs (who, where, what, when, why, for-for), is an area that requires exploration.

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