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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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No one has yet examined the interaction of socioeconomic status and variation in a systematic way. So, for example, widespread perception exists among ASL users that there are “grassroots” Deaf people (Jacobs 1980) whose educational backgrounds, employment patterns, and life experiences differ from those of middle-class Deaf professionals and that both groups use ASL. Accompanying this perception is the belief that each group exhibits differences in the variation. However, the sociolinguistic reality of these perceptions has yet to be explored. In this regard Padden and Humphries state that “even within the population of Deaf people in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Edmonton, Alberta, [smaller groups] have their own distinct identities. Within these local communities, there are smaller groups organized by class, profession, ethnicity, or race, each of which has yet another set of distinct characteristics” (1988, 4).

Sociolinguistic Variation in ASL: Project Goals

The project this book describes aimed to provide a general overview of variation in ASL at the phonological, lexical, morphological, and syntactic levels and to understand which social groups were more likely to use particular variants and which groups were likely to use other variants. That is, we sought to provide for ASL the kind of overview of variation that exists for many spoken languages. Two basic theoretical questions guided our work:

1. Can internal constraints on variation such as those defined and described in spoken languages be identified and described for variation in ASL?

2. Can the external social constraints on variation such as those defined and described in spoken languages be identified and described in ASL? 

The answers to these questions are important for two reasons. First, to understand ASL and other sign languages, we need to understand how variation functions in those languages at all linguistic levels. Second, a comparison of variation in ASL with variation in spoken languages has the potential to contribute to what is known about variation in human languages in general. We want to know whether a comparison of variation in sign languages and spoken languages will enable us to define overall characteristics of linguistic variation regardless of modality. We also want to know whether variation in sign languages is characterized by unique features not found in spoken language variation. These are the fundamental issues that underlie the work described in this book. In the remainder of this chapter, we review the work that has already been accomplished on variation in ASL and provide a basic framework within which to consider variation in sign languages. We then define what we expected to find in our data, based on what we already knew about variation in general and variation in sign languages in particular.

Previous Research on Variation in ASL

Users and observers of ASL have clearly been aware of the existence of variation in the language for a long time, and evidence of this awareness can be seen in writings about deaf people’s language use. For example, in the proceedings of the fourth Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf held at the Staunton, Virginia, school in 1856, J. R. Keep describes how “teachers of the Deaf and Dumb” should acquire knowledge of signing:

It is answered in this inquiry that there is a language of signs; a language having its own peculiar laws, and, like other languages, natural and native to those who know no other. . . . There may be different signs or motions for the same objects, yet all are intelligible and legitimate, provided they serve to recall those objects to the mind of the person with whom we are communicating. As a matter of fact, however, although the Deaf and Dumb, when they come to our public Institutions, use signs differing in many respects from those in use in the Institutions, yet they soon drop their peculiarities, and we have the spectacle of an entire community recalling objects by the same motions” (emphasis added) (1857, 133)


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