Recent history has included some major events in both the American Deaf community* and around the world, and many of the events have been fundamentally sociolinguistic in nature. For example, 13 years ago, in March 1988, the campus of Gallaudet University erupted into a week of protests stemming from the selection of Elizabeth Zinser as the seventh president of the 124-yearold institution. The outcomes of the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement are history: the resignation of the newly appointed president and of the chairman of the Board of Trustees, the reconstitution of the board to contain a majority of deaf people, the selection of a deaf president and the promise of no reprisals against the protesters.
In The Sociolinguistics of Society, Ralph Fasold (1984) observes that the essence of sociolinguistics depends on two facts about language: first, that language varies, which is to say that “speakers have more than one way to say more or less the same thing” (p. ix); and, second, that language serves a broadly encompassing purpose just as critical as the obvious one of transmitting information and thoughts from one person to another. Namely, language users use language to make statements about who they are, what their group loyalties are, how they perceive their relationship to interlocutors and what kind of speech event they consider themselves to be involved in. Critical to an understanding of the events at Gallaudet University is the critical purpose that language serves in defining one's identity, group loyalty, relationship to interlocutors and understanding of the speech event.
The major demand of the protest was for a deaf president, and the issues underlying that demand are fundamentally sociolinguistic in nature. On the one hand, it was repeatedly declared with disdain during the protest that Dr. Zinser could not sign and had only just begun learning sign language. On the other hand, in remarks following her resignation, Dr. Zinser stated that signing is important symbolically to the Deaf community, and that it is important for members of the board to “learn a little sign … just a few basic phrases, some____________________