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Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language

Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley,
and Clayton Valli
in collaboration with Mary Rose, Alyssa Wulf, Paul Dudis, Susan Schatz, and Laura Sanheim

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Read reviews: Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Language in Society.

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The Seventh Volume in the Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities Series

From Studies in Second Language Acquisition

This is the seventh volume in the highly acclaimed “Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities” series published by Gallaudet University Press. This volume is the first major attempt to document and analyze linguistic variation in American Sign Language (ASL). Based on seven years of research spread across the United States, including data collected from seven sites (Staunton, VA; Frederick, MD; Boston, MA; New Orleans, LA; Fremont, CA; Olathe, KS, and Kansas City, MO, together; and Bellingham, WA), Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language is a major contribution to the growing literature on the linguistics and sociolinguistics of ASL. It seeks to “provide a comprehensive description of the variables and constraints at work in sign language variation” (p. xv), building on the existing linguistic literature dealing with ASL. It succeeds admirably, if not in providing the final word on these complex issues, then by offering not only fascinating insights into sign language variation but also an empirical database that is unmatched in its depth and breadth in the field.

The volume is divided into nine chapters. The first two chapters provide the theoretical framework for the research project that was undertaken as well as a description of the process by which the ASL corpus was collected and analyzed. Chapter 3 then addresses the sociohistorical context for linguistic variation in the American Deaf community, examining in detail the important role played by residential schools for the deaf in general, and of the American School for the Deaf (in Hartford, CT; formerly the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb) in particular, as well as other social and political organizations created by and for Deaf people. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with phonological variation in ASL, with the emphasis in chapter 4 on variation in handshape and in chapter 5 on variation in location. For readers not familiar with the linguistics of sign languages, the idea of phonological variation in a nonoral language may be a bit puzzling. In essence, linguists studying sign languages use the term phonology to refer to the study of the smallest units that make up individual signs -- handshape, movement, location of sign, palm orientation, and nonmanual features of the sign. These phonological parameters function in a signed language in the same manner that phonemes operate in spoken languages. Chapter 6 takes us to the next step, focusing on grammatical and social conditioning of phonological variation in ASL. Chapter 7 deals with syntactic variation, focusing on the important and controversial issue of null-pronoun variation in ASL. Chapter 8 addresses the broad area of lexical variation -- the only facet of linguistic diversity in ASL that has really received even limited attention in the past (albeit fairly superficial treatment that is more anecdotal than scientific in nature.)

The research project on which this book was based, funded by the National Science Foundation in 1993, sought to answer two questions: (a) Can the internal constraints on variation, such as those defined and described in spoken languages, be identified and described for variations in ASL? and (b) Can the external social constraints on variation, such as those defined and described in spoken languages, be identified and described in ASL? In chapter 9, the concluding chapter of the volume, the authors provide the answer to both questions: clearly and demonstrably, yes. They also offer a powerful and compelling argument of the importance of research such as that reported in this volume, both in general and in particular for the Deaf communities in the United States and elsewhere.

There is, needless to say, a great deal about variation in ASL and other sign languages that is worth knowing that we do not yet know. If Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language is not the final word, it is nevertheless and incredibly valuable first word. As Roger Shuy notes in his “Foreword” to the book, “Although the last word on ASL sociolinguistics has not been said here, this book sends us on our way with a flourish.”

Ceil Lucas is Professor Emerita, Department of Linguistics, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.

Robert Bayley is Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Davis, CA.

Clayton Valli was Assistant Professor, Master’s Interpreting Program, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.

Mary Rose, Alyssa Wulf, Paul Dudis, Susan Schatz, and Laura Sanheim all were graduate students, Department of Linguistics, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC.

ISBN 978-1-56368-113-4, ISSN 1080-5494, 6 x 9 casebound, 192 pages, figures, tables, references, index

$63.50s

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