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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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What's Your Sign for Pizza? An Introduction to Variation in American Sign Language

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Figure 13. Variants of 1 handshape signs

As with deaf and the location of signs such as know, we noted a number of important potential influences on the way the signs are produced:

  • the grammatical function of the sign: Signs that use the 1 handshape can be pronouns (“I,” “you,” “he,” etc.), wh-words (where, when), grammatical function words (for), adverbs (really), verbs (go, cancel), adjectives (black, long), and nouns (week, month).
  • the preceding sign and the following sign: We took note of the handshape of the preceding and following signs: whether the thumb was extended, whether fingers other than the index were extended, and whether the index was straight or hooked.
  • context: As with deaf and the location signs, we noted whether the sign occurred in a conversation or in a story.

Charts 5 and 6 summarize what we found.

As with deaf and the location signs, the grammatical function of the 1 handshape signs plays the most important role in the variation. Signers prefer the citation form for nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, grammatical function words, wh-words, and pronouns in the third person (“she,” “he”). This preference is stronger for some grammatical classes such as nouns and adjectives than for others, such as pro.3. For second-person pronouns (“you”) and first-person pronouns (“I”), signers prefer the L or 5 handshape. In addition, the handshapes of the surrounding signs influence the variation. For example, if the thumb was extended in the preceding sign, the sign we were focusing on was more likely to be an L or a 5.

Since we were looking at three different variants (1, L, and 5), we did many analyses. All of the social factors of age, social class, ethnicity, region, and language background were significant in at least one analysis. For example, signers aged 26–54, working-class signers, African American signers, and signers from Massachusetts, California, Kansas/Missouri, and Louisiana slightly prefer the citation form (1), whereas younger and older signers, middle-class signers, Caucasian signers, and signers from Maryland, Washington, and Virginia tend to use the L or 5 forms.


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