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American Annals of the Deaf

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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

Read chapter one.
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 Language in Society

Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language is the successful result of applying sociolinguistic theory and methodology originally developed for spoken languages to American Sign Language (ASL). The product of several years of study conducted by a team of researchers, this book is more than just an exercise; both expected and unexpected findings are presented, thereby confirming and advancing the sociolinguistics of signed languages in particular and of language in general. Lucas and Valli bring to this work extensive experience with sign language linguistics; they are joined by Bayley, who is know for his work on Tejano English and Spanish variation among immigrants of Mexican descent. The statistical findings provide the necessary bridge between context and environment, on the one hand, and internal constraints, on the other, to explain the range of variation represented at phonological, syntactic, and lexical levels in ASL. Explicitly building on Weinrich, Labov & Herzog’s notion of orderly heterogeneity (14, 193-94; cf. Weinrich, Labov & Herzog 1968), the book provides useful examples and analysis for sign language linguists, and it would do well as a source for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses where materials beyond a primer of sociolinguistics are needed. For those more established in the field, the authors respectfully (and graciously) challenge several frequently cited findings concerning variation in ASL, such as Woodward & DeSantis’ (1977) claims about negative incorporation and Liddell & Johnson’s (1989) explanations for phonological variation in forms of the sign deaf. They also demonstrate the usefulness of Liddell & Johnson’s (1984, 1989) autosegmental movement-hold model for analyzing distinctive features of sign languages, especially when this is combined with statistical tools such as varbrul. Through such analysis, internal variation at phonological and grammatical levels is identified, and the influence external constraints such as region, age, ethnicity, and gender are also revealed.

The first three chapters set up the context and purpose of the research, beginning with a useful and straightforward chapter on sociolinguistic theory, its history in the studies of sign languages, and how such studies relate to those conducted on spoken languages. The second chapter presents the issues and approaches involved in collecting and analyzing an ASL corpus, though it serves well as a model for spoken language corpora, too. The discussion in this chapter of the variable rule analysis software varbrul (Pintzuk 1988; Rand & Sankoff 1990) and other statistical tools for analyzing sociolinguistic variation is helpful, particularly for those coming to sociolinguistics whose backgrounds have focused on qualitative descriptions and who might need to have issues of quantitative methodologies involving multiple contextual influences made more explicit. The third chapter presents a brief sociohistorical account of education and pedagogical philosophies involving sign language in the United States, including changing policies at residential schools for deaf students, and the training and subsequent placement of teachers and students in these schools.

The study draws from five sites throughout the United States, picked as regional representatives. Subjects vary in age, though all were exposed to sign language at early ages (prior to 5 or 6 years old) to control for any effects of late or second language acquisition. All are considered to have native or native-like fluency. Ethnicity was restricted to Caucasian and African American because of practical limitations, although many other ethnicities are obviously represented in Deaf communities. Socioeconomic status and gender were also tracked, especially because these have been seen to be traits associated with sociolinguistic theories of language change. One variable particular to ASL signers is the history of pedagogical policy with regard to the use and status of sign languages in deaf education. The 20th century saw significant swings in the acceptance and use of sign language and oralist (speech) methodologies.

The three phonological variables studied include signs produces with the “1” handshape, the order and location of elements of the sign deaf, and the locations of a class of signs that share common features (know being a typical example). The analysis reveals classic linguistic constraints on these variables (grammatical categories, phonological environments), and is shows that many of the manifestations of these constraints are explained in part through reference to sociohistorical factors of Deaf history and the social organization of Deaf communities. The authors suggest that the distribution of variations, when accounting for age, grammatical functions, social class, and ethnicity, indicates evidence of change in progress. Surprisingly, though, grammatical function plays a stronger role than anticipated, and the authors propose that this may be a direct reflection of the modality difference of signed languages (see chap. 6).

Of course, one of the trickiest aspects of linguistic analysis is the highly situated nature of discourse. The strength of the analysis done by these authors is that they weigh multiple factors to discern their relative influences on linguistic variation, and they produce quantitative findings that verify and challenge current explanations of patterns, some of which are based on qualitative studies. Yet even as they did so, these researchers encountered the perpetual problem that not all factors, whether internal or external (i.e., sociocultural), can be accounted for simultaneously, even where they are identified. Furthermore, they raise the epistemological problem that, when one is collecting a linguistic corpus and coding for various factors, the categories and terms used in coding (or even collecting) need to be already recognized in order to be explored. Thus, studies such as this one highlight the continuing need for a range of complementary approaches, including those that are psycholinguistic and anthropological, experimental and ethnographic. For example, the importance of the unique history of Deaf communities and the role of policy regarding the legitimacy of sign language hints at other issues that might be found only through more extended, naturalistic, inductive studies. Such studies would identify additional kinds of factors accommodated to through the ordered heterogeneity of language – factors that can then be tested quantitatively by projects such as that conducted by the authors of this volume.

It has been a pleasure to review a book so clear in purpose and successful in execution. This book demonstrates the advantages of carefully planned collaborative teamwork, drawing upon a vast range of expertise and experience, all the while modeling explicit methodology and theory for sociolinguistic analysis and exploration. The writing remains direct and accessible throughout, with technical terms and concepts supported by useful references, often summarized in ways that are helpful when introducing (or reintroducing) topics to readers not fully familiar them. It suggests interesting avenues for future research. For these reasons, I strongly recommend this book for graduate and upper-division courses in sociolinguistic variation, especially courses in which the study of sign languages is included. I also recommend it to anyone interested in sociolinguistic variation, or the interplay between linguistic theory and pedagogy.

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


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