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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Turning to sign languages, since William C. Stokoe’s pioneering work in the 1960s, linguists have recognized that natural sign languages are autonomous linguistic systems, structurally independent of the spoken languages with which they may coexist in any given community. This recognition has brought about extensive research into different aspects of ASL structure and resulted in the recognition that, because natural sign languages are full-fledged autonomous linguistic systems shared by communities of users, the sociolinguistics of sign languages can be described in ways that parallel the description of spoken languages. It follows that sign languages must exhibit sociolinguistic variation similar to that seen in spoken languages.

Indeed, there have been some investigations of sociolinguistic variation in ASL, but these have generally focused on only small numbers of signers, have used a wide variety of methods to collect data, and have looked at a disparate collection of linguistic features. Patrick and Metzger (1996), for example, reviewed 50 sociolinguistic studies of sign languages conducted between 1971 and 1994. They found that more than half of the studies involved 10 or fewer signers and that one-third included only one or two signers. Only nine studies involved 50 or more signers, and a number of these drew on the same data set. Patrick and Metzger found that although the number of sociolinguistic studies increased during the period they surveyed, the proportion of quantitative studies declined from approximately half during the period from 1972 to 1982 to between one third and one quarter during the period from 1983 to 1993. The percentage of studies involving large samples (50+ signers) also declined from 33 percent during the first period to a mere 6 percent during the latter period. The result is that we do not yet have a complete picture of what kinds of units may be variable in ASL and of what kinds of internal and external constraints might be operating on these variable units. However, as Padden and Humphries (1988) observed, Deaf people in the United States are aware of variation in ASL even though no one has fully described it from a linguistic perspective.

Padden and Humphries describe “a particular group of deaf people who share a language—American Sign Language (ASL)—and a culture. The members of this group reside in the United States and Canada, have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society.” They continue, “this . . . is not simply a camaraderie with others who have a similar physical condition, but is, like many other cultures in the traditional sense of the term, historically created and actively transmitted across generations” (1988, 2). Certainly, then, there is an ever-growing awareness among its users of the existence and use of a language that is independent and different from the majority language, English. ASL users are also aware of sociolinguistic variation in ASL. However, many aspects of that variation have yet to be explored. In terms of linguistic structure, most of the studies to date focus on lexical variation, with some studies of phonological variation, and very few of morphological or syntactic variation. In terms of social factors, the major focus has been on regional variation, with some attention paid to ethnicity, age, gender, and factors that may play a particular role in the deaf community, such as audiological status of parents, age at which ASL was acquired, and educational background (e.g., residential schooling as opposed to mainstreaming).

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