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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Lexical Variation

The years following the publication of the DASL witnessed a number of studies of variation in ASL. At the lexical level, for example, Woodward (1976) examined differences between African American and Caucasian signing. His data, based on a small number of signers, included both direct elicitation and spontaneous language production. He suggested that African Americans tended to use the older forms of signs (i.e., the signs that do not show evidence of phonological processes such as assimilation).

In 1984 Shroyer and Shroyer published their influential work on lexical variation, which drew on signers across the United States. They collected data on 130 words (the criterion for inclusion of a word was the existence of 3 signs for the same word) from 38 Caucasian signers in 25 states. Their findings also included instances of phonological variation, but they did not discuss them as such. They collected a total of 1,200 sign forms for the 130 words, which included nouns, verbs, and some adverbs. Because this study was the point of departure for one portion of our data collection, we will review it in more detail in the chapter on lexical variation.

Other early studies of variation focused on the phonological, morphological, and syntactic levels.

Phonological Variation

In the mid-1970s Battison, Markowicz, and Woodward (1975) examined variation in thumb extension in signs such as funny, black, boring, and cute. All of these signs may be produced with the thumb either closed or extended to the side. Thirty-nine deaf signers participated in the study. The social factors determining participant selection were gender, parental audiological status, and the age at which the signer learned to sign (before or after age 6). Signers provided intuitive responses about whether they would extend their thumb in certain signs. They were also asked to sign 10 sentences under three conditions: as if to a deaf friend, as if” to a hearing teacher, and as if in a practice situation. In the third condition, signers were asked to practice the sentences and were videotaped doing so without their knowledge. Six internal constraints on thumb extension were reported to distinguish the signs being investigated: (1) indexicality (i.e., is the sign produced contiguous to its referent, as in a pronoun or determiner?); (2) bending of fingers (i.e., do the other fingers involved in the sign bend, as in funny?); (3) middle finger extension (i.e., is the middle finger extended as part of the sign?); (4) twisting movement (i.e., does the hand twist during the production of the sign, as in boring?); (5) whether the sign is produced on the face, as in black or funny; and (6) whether the sign is made in the center of one of four major areas of the body.

All of these features are what Wolfram (personal communication, 1993) would call compositional, that is, features of the signs themselves that may be playing a role in the variation. The analysis found that signs that were indexic, such as the second-person pronoun pro.2 (‘you’), had the most thumb extension, followed by signs with bending, such as funny. Signs produced in the center of the signing space, such as pro.1 (‘I’), had less thumb extension. The analysis found no correlation between the linguistic variation and the social factors used to select participants.


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