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Sign Language Studies
American Annals of the Deaf
What's Your Sign for Pizza?
An Introduction to Variation in American Sign Language
deaf, we looked at each example and noted important things:
As with deaf,
we noted whether the location sign occurred in a conversation
or in a story. And once again, as with
deaf, we found that the grammatical category of the sign is the most
important influence on the variation. As Chart 3 illustrates, prepositions
and interrogative words tend to be lowered, whereas nouns, verbs, and
adjectives are more likely to be produced at the forehead level.
- the grammatical function of the sign: As we mentioned earlier, the signs
in this group can be verbs, adjectives, nouns, prepositions, and
- the preceding sign and following sign: We noted whether a sign preceded or
followed the location sign or whether a pause was there. We also noted whether
the location of the preceding sign and following sign was at the level of the
signer’s head or at the level of the signer’s body (at the neck or below).
Then we noted whether the preceding or following sign made contact with the
Moreover, characteristics of the preceding and following signs play a role: Both
the preceding location and the following contact are important. We found that if
the preceding sign is produced at the head level, the location sign tends to be
produced there, too. If the preceding sign is produced below the neck, the
location sign tends to be lowered. If the following sign has no contact with the
body, the location sign tends to be lowered, whereas if the following sign makes
contact with the body, the location sign tends to be produced at the forehead
Chart 3. Linguistic Influences on the Location of Signs
Noncitation (lowered) forms are slightly more common (53%) than citation
Prepositions are more likely to be signed lower than the citation form
Nouns and verbs are neutral (52%).
The relatively few adjectives in the study are likely to be produced in
citation form (65%).
Location of the
When the preceding sign
is produced at the level of the body, signs such as
know are slightly more
likely be produced lower than the citation form (53%) than when the
preceding sign is produced at the level of the head (48%).
Contact of the following
sign with the body
When the following sign
has no contact with the body, signers are more likely to choose a lowered
form (55%) than when the following sign contacts the body (48%).
As Chart 4 shows, the signs that vary in location show sociolinguistic
patterning similar to
deaf. Many of the social factors are significant. For example, the
younger signers produced the signs below the forehead more than did the signers
in the middle aged and older groups. Men tended to lower the signs more than
women. This result parallels variation in spoken languages, in which women
consistently use more citation forms than men do. Participants from Deaf ASL-signing
families are slightly more likely to produce the forehead-level citation forms,
whereas participants from nonsigning families produce slightly more lowered
forms. African American signers prefer the citation forms produced at the
forehead level, whereas white signers produce more lowered forms. Finally,
participants from the more rural sites that we visited—Frederick, Staunton, and
Bellingham—also prefer the forehead forms.