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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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also important. The contact-cheek form of deaf occurs more frequently when the next sign is at the ear or above or at the chin or below, but not when the following sign is on the cheek. Charts 1 and 2 contain a quick summary of our findings:

We had expected to find that the location of the preceding and following signs plays a big role in the variation of deaf, but, surprisingly, the grammatical function of deaf itself turns out to have the most influence. For the social factors, we found that deaf also exhibits sociolinguistic patterning, but only age and region appear to be important. Other factors such as ethnicity, gender, language background, and social class are not significant. Age and region have a complicated relationship. For example, the Boston signers in general use the ear-to-chin form more often than the chin-to-ear or contact-cheek forms, and the older signers are more likely to use ear-to-chin than the middle aged or young signers. In Maryland we see the opposite: The youngest signers are most likely to use the ear-to-chin form. In Virginia, California, and Washington state, the younger signers tend to use the chin-to-ear and contact-cheek forms. In California, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington, the middle-aged group consistently tends to use the ear-to-chin forms more often than the oldest and youngest signers in these areas. We think that this may be because the signers in the middle group were in school at the time when ASL was beginning to be recognized as a real language and when linguists were starting to do research on ASL and other sign languages. These signers may have a heightened awareness of what is considered the “correct” form (ear-to-chin) and thus use it more.

Chart 1. Linguistic Influences on the Choice of a Form of deaf:
Ear-to-Chin vs. Chin-to-Ear or Contact-Cheek

deaf, ear to chin vs. chin to ear or contact cheek

Overall

Noncitation forms (69%) are far more common than citation forms (31%).

Grammatical function

Compound signs tend to be contact -heek or chin-to-ear.
Predicates tend to be ear-to-chin.
Nouns may be any of the three, but the ear-to-chin form is the most common.

Conversation or story

Stories tend to be chin-to-ear or contact-cheek.
Conversation tends to have more ear-to-chin than stories do.

Chart 2. Linguistic Influences on the Choice of a Form of deaf
(Chin-to-Ear vs. Contact-Cheek)

deaf, chin to ear vs. contact cheek

Overall

Contact-cheek is found in all grammatical categories but occurs much less frequently in nouns (17%), adjectives (10%), and predicates (17%) than in compounds (56%).

Grammatical function

Compound signs tend to be contact-cheek.
Predicates, nouns, and adjectives tend to be chin-to-ear.

Conversation or story

Low and high signs are often preceded by contact-cheek.
Middle and pause are usually preceded by chin-to-ear.


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