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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

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Another study of phonological variation, conducted by Woodward, Erting, and Oliver (1976), focused on face-to-hand variation—that is, certain signs that are produced on the face in some regions are produced on the hands in other regions. Such signs include movie, rabbit, lemon, color, silly, peach, and peanut. Deaf signers from New Orleans were compared with signers from Atlanta, and data were collected by means of a questionnaire. Results from 45 respondents suggested that New Orleans signers produced signs on the face that Atlanta signers produced on the hands.

Phonological variation is also evident in the one-handed and two-handed form of the same sign. Woodward and DeSantis (1977b), for example, examined a subset of such signs produced on the face, including cat, chinese, cow, and famous. They proposed that the features conditioning the variation included outward movement of the sign, high facial location as opposed to low facial location, and complex movement—again all compositional features. On the basis of questionnaire data, they claimed that the signs that tended to become one-handed were those with no outward movement, made in a salient facial area, produced lower on the face, and characterized by complex movement. They also reported that Southerners used two-handed forms more than non-Southerners, that older signers used two-handed signs more than younger signers, and that African American signers tended to use the older two-handed signs more often than Caucasian signers of the same age.

Finally, DeSantis (1977) examined variation in signs that can be produced on the hands or at the elbow, such as help or punish. The analysis was based on videotapes of free conversation and on responses to a questionnaire. Data for the study were collected in France in the summer of 1975 and in the United States in the spring of 1976. Ninety-nine deaf signers participated, including 60 from France and 39 from Atlanta. The results were similar for both French and American signers. Men used the hand versions of the signs; women used the elbow versions more frequently.

Morphological and Syntactic Variation

At the levels of syntax and morphology, Woodward (1973b, 1973c, 1974) and Woodward and DeSantis (1977a) explored the variable use of three morphosyntactic rules: negative incorporation, agent-beneficiary directionality, and verb reduplication. Negative incorporation is a rule in ASL whereby negation is indicated in a verb by outward movement, as in don’t-know, don’t-want, and don’t-like, as opposed to know, want, and like. Agent-beneficiary directionality is the term Woodward and DeSantis used for verb agreement. For example, in the verb “1st-person-give-to-2nd-person,” the hand moves from the signer to a space in front of the signer; in “2nd-person-give-to-1st-person,” the hand moves from a space in front of the signer to the signer. What Woodward and DeSantis refer to as verb reduplication entails the repetition of the movement of the verb as a function of aspect, as in study-continually or study-regularly. For the study of these three rules, data were gathered from 141 signers (132 Caucasian and nine African American signers). Other social variables included whether the signer was deaf (i.e., some signers were hearing, non-native signers), whether the signer’s parents were deaf, the age at which sign language was learned, whether the signer attended college, and gender. Signers were shown examples of the linguistic variables in question and asked to indicate on a questionnaire whether they use the forms presented. The overall results showed that deaf signers who had learned to sign before age 6 and who had deaf parents used the form of the rules being investigated that more closely reflected ASL structure. Internal linguistic constraints are reported only for agent-beneficiary directionality: Woodward proposed a continuum of semantic features ranging from “extremely beneficial” to “extremely harmful” to account for the variation. His continuum predicts that signs such as give (beneficial) will tend to show directionality, whereas signs such as hate (harmful) will not.


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