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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Several researchers have offered useful explanations of the concept of a sociolinguistic variable. Drawing upon the work of LabovLabov (1972a), Fasold characterized the sociolinguistic variable as “a set of alternative ways of saying the same thing, although the alternatives will have social significance” (1990, 223–24). Milroy referred to the “bits of language” that “are associated with sex, area and age subgroups in an extremely complicated way” (1987, 131), the “bits of language” being sociolinguistic variables. She defined a sociolinguistic variable as “a linguistic element (phonological usually, in practice), which covaries, not only with other linguistic elements, but also with a number of extra-linguistic independent social variables such as social class, age, sex, ethnic group or contextual style” (1987, 10). Wolfram defined a linguistic variable as a “convenient construct employed to unite a class of fluctuating variants within some specified language set” (1991, 23). He distinguished between a linguistic variable, which has to do with the linguistic constraints on variation, and a sociolinguistic variable, a construct that unifies the correlation of internal variables and external constraints. Internal constraints are features of a linguistic nature—a sound, a handshape, a syntactic structure—that favor or disfavor a speaker or signer’s choice of a particular variant. External constraints are the factors of a social nature that may correlate with the behavior of the linguistic variables. For example, the variable (ING) (in the pronunciation of words such as working as workin’) has been studied in many dialects of English. Research has shown that (ING) is subject to both internal and external constraints. Thus, the alveolar nasal variant /n/ is associated with verbal categories, and the velar nasal variant /N/ with nominal ones, an internal constraint (Houston 1991). The choice between /n/ and /N/ is also subject to external constraints. Thus, women tend to use the /N/ variant, the standard form, more frequently than men of the same social class (Trudgill 1974).

In spoken languages, other internal constraints on linguistic variation may include the preceding or following segment, the grammatical structure in which the variable item occurs, and syllable stress. In sign languages, internal constraints may include the handshape of the preceding or following sign, for example. We will return to the nature of internal and external constraints in more detail in a later section.

The interaction between linguistic forms and the immediate linguistic environment and between social factors and linguistic forms has been explored extensively in spoken languages for over 40 years, beginning with Fischer’s (1958) study of (ING) in the speech of New England school children and further developed by Labov (1966, 1969) in New York City. Other representative studies include Shuy, Wolfram, and Riley’s (1968) and Wolfram’s (1969) work in Detroit, Sankoff and Cedergren’s study of Montreal French (1972), Cedergren’s (1973a) dissertation on Panamanian Spanish, and Trudgill’s (1974) study of variation in the dialect of Norwich, England. Somewhat later, Rickford (1979, 1987) studied Guyanese Creole, Lesley Milroy (1980, 1987) reported on variation in the English of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and James Milroy (1992) proposed a model of language change.


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