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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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In “Sign Language Dialects” (Appendix D) Croneberg dealt with sociolinguistic variation, specifically as it pertains to the preparation of a dictionary. He observed, “One of the problems that early confronts the lexicographers of a language is dialect, and this problem is particularly acute when the language has never before been written. They must try to determine whether an item in the language is standard, that is, used by the majority of a given population, or dialect, that is, used by a particular section of the population” (1965, 313). He outlined the difference between what he termed horizontal variation (regional variation) and vertical variation (variation that occurs in the language of groups separated by social stratification) and stated that ASL exhibits both. He then described the results of a study of lexical variation undertaken in North Carolina, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont using a 134-item sign vocabulary list. He found that for ASL, the state boundaries between North Carolina and Virginia also constituted dialect boundaries. North Carolina signs were not found in Virginia and vice versa. He found the three New England states to be less internally standardized (i.e., people within each of the three states exhibited a wide range of variants for each item) and the state boundaries in New England to be much less important, with considerable overlap in lexical choice observed among the three states. Pointing out the key role of the residential schools in the dissemination of dialects, he stated, “At such a school, the young deaf learn ASL in the particular variety characteristic of the local region. The school is also a source of local innovations, for each school generation comes up with some new signs or modifications of old ones” (1965, 314).

In his discussion of vertical variation, Croneberg mentioned the influence of age, ethnicity, gender, religion, and status. His definition of status encompassed economic level, occupation, relative leadership within the deaf community, and educational background. He further noted that professionally employed individuals who were financially prosperous graduates of Gallaudet College “tend to seek each other out and form a group. Frequently they use certain signs that are considered superior to the signs used locally for the same thing. Examples of such signs are Gallaudet signs, transmitted by one or more graduates of Gallaudet who are now teaching at a school for the deaf, and who are members of the local elite. The sign may or may not later be incorporated in the sign language of the local or regional community” (1965, 318).

Finally, Croneberg commented on what a standard sign language might be and stated that “few have paid any attention to the term standard in the sense of ‘statistically most frequent.’ The tendency has been to divide sign language into good and bad” (1965, 318), with older signers and educators of the deaf maintaining the superiority of their respective signs for various reasons. He neatly captured the essence of the difference between prescriptive and descriptive perspectives on language when he wrote, “What signs the deaf population actually uses and what certain individuals consider good signs are thus very often two completely different things” (1965, 319).


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