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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Variation

Even casual observation reveals that language users sometimes have different ways of saying or signing the same thing. Variation may be realized at all different levels of a language. English, for example, contains numerous examples of variation in the lexicon. Some speakers use the word couch, whereas others say sofa or davenport. ASL also exhibits numerous examples of lexical variation. For example, a number of signs exist for the concepts birthday, picnic, or halloween.

At the phonological level, variation exists in the individual segments that make up words or signs or in parts of those segments. For example, speakers of a wide range of English dialects sometimes delete the final consonant of words that end in consonant clusters such as test, round, or past, the result being tes’, roun’, and pas’ (Labov et al. 1968; Guy 1980). In ASL, phonological variation can be seen in signs such as bored or deaf, usually signed with a 1 handshape (index finger extended, all other fingers closed) but sometimes produced with both the index finger and the pinky finger extended (Hoopes 1998).

Variation may also occur in the morphological and syntactic components of language. For example, in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), the copula be is variably deleted, and the sentences He is my brother and He Ø my brother both occur. The example of consonant cluster reduction given earlier also concerns morphological variation because the final consonant deleted is often a past-tense morpheme (i.e., a meaningful unit). For example, the phonetic realization of the English word passed is [pæst], and the /t/ is the past-tense morpheme that may be variably deleted.

Morphological and syntactic variation in ASL has not yet been extensively explored. However, the variable realization of subject pronouns may serve as an illustration of this type of variation. The ASL verb think, for example, can be produced with an overt subject pronoun, as in the sentence pro.1 think, ‘I think.’ ASL, however, is what is known as a pro-drop language, and verbs that can have overt subject pronouns are sometimes produced without them, so that the preceding sentence can be produced simply as think, ‘(I) think.’ That is, the production of subject pronouns is variable and is likely to be a fruitful area for research, as it has been in languages such as Portuguese and Spanish (see e.g., Cameron 1996; Naro 1981).

Sociolinguistic variation takes into account the fact that the different linguistic variants may correlate with social factors including age, socioeconomic class, gender, ethnic background, region, and sexual orientation. For example, older people may use more of a given variant than younger people; women may use less of a given variant than men; a given variant may occur more in the language used by working-class people than in the language of middle-class users.

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