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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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As with deaf, we looked at each example and noted important things:

  • the grammatical function of the sign: As we mentioned earlier, the signs in this group can be verbs, adjectives, nouns, prepositions, and interrogatives.
  • 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 body.
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.

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 level.

Chart 3. Linguistic Influences on the Location of Signs such as know

Linguistic influence

Finding

Overall Noncitation (lowered) forms are slightly more common (53%) than citation forms (47%).
Grammatical function Prepositions are more likely to be signed lower than the citation form (59%).
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 preceding sign

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.


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