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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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It is now beginning to be clear that sign languages make considerably less use of affixation than do languages such as English, Italian, or Spanish. In sign languages, deletable final segments may not be morphemes in the same way that they are in many spoken languages. The past-tense marking accomplished by the -t or -d in English is accomplished in different ways in ASL. Similarly, verb agreement is not accomplished by affixation as in many spoken languages. Rather, agreement is accomplished by a change in the location and/or palm orientation feature of one segment of a sign. There are many agreement verbs in ASL, and there are also plain verbs (i.e., verbs that do not allow agreement to be incorporated into the location or orientation feature of the verb and that require separate lexical signs for subject and object). There is some anecdotal evidence for plain and agreement variants of the same verb—for example, call-on-telephone. But because verb agreement is not accomplished by the sequential affixation of morphemes, the internal constraints on such variation will have nothing to do with the sequential occurrence of morphemes, as it does in Caribbean Spanish, for example, with final –s aspiration or final –s deletion in verbs. Clearly, we will most likely have to search elsewhere in the linguistic environment for some of the internal constraints on variation.

In summary, based on our review of studies of variation in ASL and what we knew about variation in spoken languages, we expected to find variable linguistic units in ASL, parallel to the variable linguistic units in spoken languages. We also anticipated finding variable processes in ASL parallel to the variable processes in spoken languages, and we expected to find internal constraints on the variable units. However, we expected these constraints to reflect the structure of sign languages, different in fundamental ways from the structure of spoken languages, and indeed this turned out to be the case, as we show in chapters 4, 5, and 6. Not all internal constraints on sign language variables parallel the constraints on spoken language variables.

Finally, all aspects of the variation in our data—phonological, morphosyntactic, and lexical—are examined for correlation with external constraints such as region, age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. This informs us as to gender, age, and regional differences and allows us to begin to construct the comprehensive picture of sociolinguistic variation in ASL that was the original goal of the project. It allows us to see how variation is distributed in the community and to begin to formulate an empirical response to the perceptions that “grassroots” Deaf people sign differently from middle-class Deaf people or that “black ASL” differs from what is produced by white signers. Will noncitation 1 handshape (e.g., all fingers open) prove to be more prevalent among male signers than among female signers? Will the chin-to-ear variant of deaf be more common among working-class signers than among middle-class signers? Will younger signers produce more pro-drop than older signers? Are these examples of stable variation, or is there change underway toward noncitation 1 handshape, chin-to-ear, and pro-drop? These are the kinds of questions that we hope to answer.

In addition, there may be external constraints unique to the Deaf community to which we need to pay attention. For example, we know that some ASL users are raised in deaf families as native users of the language, whereas many are raised in hearing families in which ASL may not be used. Family background may help us understand the variation we observe. Furthermore, the development of residential schools for deaf people and of policies of language use in those schools have had a direct impact on language use in the Deaf community. The history of these developments needs to be considered in any examination of sociolinguistic variation in ASL. We examine this history in chapter 3, but first we describe the methodology of the project that is the focus of this book.

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