Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Investigating Black Asl: A Systematic Review

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Investigating Black Asl: A Systematic Review

Article excerpt

Linguistic variation has been noted in all spoken languages. These variations are observed across all five domains of language (phonological, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic). The variations that are present are often influenced by geographic and social isolation. In the United States, distinct dialects are spoken such as African American English, Southern English, Spanish-Influenced English, and Appalachian English Vernacular. Since signed languages share the same domains as spoken languages, certain features of spoken languages have influenced signed languages as they have come in contact with each other (Cormier, Schembri, & Woll, 2010). Although both signed and spoken languages are influenced by each other, Evans and Levinson (2009) propose that the universals of language actually ignore the existence of signed languages despite the fact that they are rich with linguistic diversity. It has been proposed that American Sign Language (ASL) has been influenced by African American English, which has influenced the development of a dialectal variation called Black ASL. Further empirical research in this area is needed to document the existence of Black ASL and to describe the linguistic differences found between Black ASL and ASL. In the present article, we explore existing empirical research on Black ASL, as well as document the differences found between Black ASL and ASL.

Historically, signed languages were not looked upon as true languages. Once it was finally established that signed languages were indeed languages with a specific structure and linguistic rules, differences were studied by linguists who specialized in signed languages (Stokoe, Casterline, & Croneberg, 1965). ASL evolved from a mixture of French Sign Language and sign systems already in use by Deaf people in the United States, through a collaboration between Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet during 1815-1816 (Lucas, Bayley, & Valli, 2001). ASL is a robust language that changes over time, and these changes are influenced by geographic and social isolation, just as is the case for spoken languages.

ASL is a visual and spatial language with a linguistic structure that differs from that of English in numerous ways. Intensity of signs, use of space, and other nonverbal modalities are an integral part of the language. For example, when a person, place, or thing is being talked about, an imaginary area is set up in space and it then becomes a referent. Subsequently during conversation, this location regarding the person, place, or thing will be referred to with a slight nod or point toward that particular area (Friedman, 1975). This type of linguistic form is also noted in contrastive sentence structure. If we set "Don" on the left and "Debbie" on the right, they can be easily referred to with a smooth transition by merely nodding or pointing to that area. The signer may point to the area on the left, indicating that the conversation is about Don, then continue to give information about him. The structure of ASL is such that the "topic" is presented first, followed by "comment," a sequence different from what is usual in spoken English. There are no markers such as "the" and "a" used in ASL. "Wh-" questions are signed at the end of sentences, not at the beginning. Verb tense is not indicated within the sign itself, but in the temporal sign marker, which is signed before or after. Signs such as "future," "past," and "now" are considered temporal markers and do not affect the production of the other signs (Friedman, 1975). This is an exception to the normal ASL rule that the topic comes first: The temporal marker comes first, then the topic, then the comment regarding the topic. Often, at the end of a sentence in this format, the sign for "finish" is produced. This also indicates that the action has been completed. Just like spoken language, ASL is a dynamic language with a rich historical background that grows and changes with use, producing variations. …

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