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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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In a response to Keep’s remarks, Dunlap compares the signs used at the Indiana School for the Deaf with those used at the Ohio and Virginia schools and states that there is a need for uniformity “not only in Institutions widely separated but among teachers in the same Institution” (1857, 138). In another response to Keep’s remarks, Peet refers to Deaf signers as “those to whom the language is vernacular” (emphasis added) and in a discussion of a class of signs described in current theory as classifier predicates states “Here is room for difference of dialects. One Deaf Mute may fall upon one sign and another upon another sign, for the same object, both natural” (1857, 144–146).

In 1875 Warring Wilkinson, principal of the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, wrote about how “the sign language” comes about:

The deaf mute child has mental pictures. He wants to convey similar pictures to his friends. Has speech a genesis in any other fact or need? In the natural order of thought the concrete always precedes the abstract, the subject its attribute, the actor the act. So the deaf mute, like the primitive man, deals primarily with things. He points to an object, and seizing upon some characteristic or dominant feature makes a sign for it. When he has occasion to refer to that object in its absence, he will reproduce the gesture, which will be readily understood, because the symbol has been tacitly agreed upon. Another deaf mute, seeing the same thing, is struck by another peculiarity, and makes another and different sign. Thus half a dozen or more symbols may be devised to represent one and the same thing, and then the principle of the ‘survival of the fittest’ comes in, and the best sign becomes established in usage. (1875, 37)

These writings provide an indication of early awareness of sign structure and variation, although formal research on the topic did not begin until the 1960s.

Early Research on Variation in ASL

The Dictionary of American Sign Language

Any review of systematic research in variation must take its departure from Carl Croneberg’s two appendices to the 1965 Dictionary of American Sign Language (DASL) by William Stokoe, Dorothy Casterline, and Croneberg. “The Linguistic Community” (Appendix C) describes the cultural and social aspects of the Deaf community and discusses the issues of economic status, patterns of social contact, and the factors that contribute to group cohesion. These factors include the extensive networks of both a personal and organizational nature that ensure frequent contact even among people who live on opposite sides of the country. Croneberg noted that “there are close ties also between deaf individuals or groups of individuals as far apart as California and New York. Deaf people from New York on vacation in California stop and visit deaf friends there or at least make it a practice to visit the club for the deaf in San Francisco or Los Angeles. . . . The deaf as a group have social ties with each other that extend farther across the nation than similar ties of perhaps any other American minority group” (1965, 310). Croneberg pointed out that these personal ties are reinforced by membership in national organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf (NFSD), and the National Congress of Jewish Deaf (NCJD). These personal and organizational patterns of interaction, of course, are central to understanding patterns of language use and variation in ASL. Specifically, as we will discuss in more detail in chapter 3, while ASL is definitely variable at a number of different linguistic levels, there is at the same time the reality and the recognition of a cohesive community of ASL users that extends across the United States.


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