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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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We collected a total of 1,618 tokens, or examples, from our videotapes. We looked at each token and noted four things:

1.  The grammatical function of the sign deaf: deaf can be an adjective, as in the phrase deaf cat; it can also function as a noun, as in the sentence deaf understand, which might be translated into English as “Deaf people understand.” It can function as a predicate, as in the sentence pro.1 deaf, “I am Deaf,” and it also appears in many compound signs, such as deaf M  culture, deaf M  institution, deaf M  world, and deaf M  way.

2.  The location of the preceding sign: We wanted to see whether the location of the preceding sign had any effect on the location of deaf, so we noted whether the preceding sign was produced at the ear or above (“high,” as in father), between the ear and the chin (“middle,” as in kid), or at the chin or below (“low,” as in pride). We also noted whether deaf was preceded just by a pause, that is, without a sign.

3.  The location of the following sign: We also wanted to see whether the location of the following sign had any effect on the location of deaf, so we noted where the following sign was produced, just as we did with the preceding sign.

4.  Our videotapes show people mostly just chatting but sometimes also telling stories, so we wanted to see whether that would make a difference in the location of deaf. Thus we noted whether deaf occurred in a conversation or a story.

Overall we found that people use many more noncitation than citation forms of deaf. In fact, six groups of signers used noncitation forms more than 90 percent of the time. Older signers in Virginia, for example, used noncitation forms 96 percent of the time. Only three groups of signers—young people in Maryland and signers over twenty-five in Massachusetts—used the citation form for the majority of tokens of deaf: It seems that in ASL, as in other languages, people use the language the way they want to use it, regardless of what may be written in dictionaries.

When we analyzed the factors that influence people’s choice of the citation form of deaf or one of the noncitation forms, we found that the most important constraint is the grammatical function of the sign. When deaf is a predicate, it is signed ear-to-chin more often than when it serves some other grammatical function. When it is in a compound, it tends to be contact-cheek. Nouns and adjectives are both ear-to-chin and chin-to-ear. Chin-to-ear and contact-cheek also tend to occur in stories, while ear to chin occurs slightly more often in regular conversation. The location of the preceding and following sign has no effect on the choice between the citation form and a noncitation form. When comparing the two noncitation forms—chin-to-ear and contact-cheek—the grammatical function is still the most important factor, with contact-cheek occurring most often in compound signs. In addition, we found that the location of the following sign is


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