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ASL Linguistics: Sociolinguistic Variation of ASL

Sociolinguistics:  The study of language and linguistic behavior as influenced by social and cultural factors.

Rogelio Contreras

Regional, Cultural, and Sociolinguistic Variation of ASL in the United States

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the sociolinguistic variations of American Sign Language found across the United States.  Variations of ASL based on regional, social economic background, and ethnicity will be discussed.  This research paper is based on three interviews with two Deaf adults, an interpreter, and several abstracts in sociolinguistics.  Two of the individuals interview were born deaf and were educated in residential school.  One is from China and the other one is American.  The third person is hearing and a level four interpreter. 

    Deaf Americans are as ethnically diverse as the general population in the United States.  This is a multicultural group that differs in more than just skin color and ethnic heritage.  They differ across a variety of dimensions like degree, age, and extent of hearing loss, etiology, gender, geographic location, country of birth, communication preference, language use, educational level, occupation, and social economic background.  Recent figures estimate that there are around 400,000 Deaf Americans (Fischer 2002).  The majority are white Deaf.  The Black, Hispanic, and Asian Deaf population has been at a steady increase over the last few decades.  Many laws like the ADA and IDEA have impacted the Deaf community by making assess to education, communication, and work more feasible then in the past.  The age of technology, like the Internet, has impacted this community in many positive ways.  This has all played into the ASL linguistic variations seen presently in the U.S. We must also understand that ASL like any other language is a dynamic system that is constantly in a state of change.

    In the book Orchid of the Bayou by Catherine Hoffpaur Fisher, which a story of a Deaf woman and how she faces blindness, gives some good examples of regional variations of ASL.  She grew up in Louisiana and attended the Louisiana School for the Deaf.  When she arrived at Gallaudet she noticed how New Yorkers did everything fast including signing and how they mocked the slow signs that flowed from the Southern signers.  Jackie Bruce mentions that Californians sign similar to New Yorkers. (2002) Fisher notices some phonological differenced in New Yorkers here: “Most of us finger spelled the letters M and N by curling our first two or three fingers around our thumbs, but the New Yorkers straightened these fingers, extending them sharply downwards toward the ground” (2001).  I asked one of my interviewees why this was so and they said it can be due to two factors, one is lip-reading and the other one is the fast pace of life in New York and the East Coast in general (Smith 2002).  It seems that the environment as well as the way of life of the region influences linguistic variation in ASL.  The Southerners live a more rural and slow paced life therefore their signing matches their life style:
This was only one of the regional variances that we discovered in the sign language that we all used.  Southerners shared the tendency to sign orange with the Y handshape, gray with a G handshape sliding across the forehead, birthday by pulling on the ear, and hospital with an H at the wrist.  (Fischer 2001)
Smith agreed in that the sign birthday is different depending on the region in the U.S. (2002)  Another example in morphology is the differences if how Northern people sign coke or soda pop.  They use the dominant hand middle finger and insert it in the 0 shape handshape of the non-dominant hand and out immediately.  There are thousands of more examples of the diverse linguistic variations found around the country, but this shows the richness of ASL dialect in the U.S.

Just like different ethnic groups in the United States have their dialects, ASL also has similar characteristics depending on the cultural group.  Black hearing people have Ebonics, Latino’s have Spanglish, Texans have a twang in their pronunciation, etc….  so is the case with the Deaf community.  Smith said that Black Deaf sign with more body shifting and movement.  (2002)  Some signs used by southern black deaf are not used by other Deaf ethnic groups.  Woodward gives us some interesting examples:  “pregnant which is made by touching the 5 hand twice on the chin, cornbread made by placing B hands together and moving them from side to side, white person made by placing the B hand palm inwards near the side of the face and closing and opening the B hand twice. (1974)  He mentions that these signs have never been use by white signers in Georgia.  This is due to the fact and is mostly found in older Black Deaf individuals that Blacks were segregated in the past.  In their segregated schools they used signs that were only used in the Black residential schools.  “As black deaf children have been brought into the integrated school setting and sign language has been used by everyone, they have learned the same language as the other deaf children in the school.” (Maxwell 1986) 

Another factor is that they also have a triple barrier to overcome. They have to learn to live in the black, deaf, and hearing culture.  Li was asked in the interview what she noticed about Smith’s signing that differed form Black, Asian or Hispanic Deaf.  She said that White Deaf do not have the same accent as Blacks. (2002)  It is a hard concept for a hearing person to understand" she continues "because they have a different mode of communication."  She said it was hard to explain to a hearing person, but that deaf people do notice it easily.  This may be like hearing people who notice how Blacks use Ebonics like “we be going to the store aight” or Hispanics rolling their r’s in English words like “crrazy”. Or Jamaicans saying “Rasta mon”.   Smith commented that Li’s accent is unique because she is a native from China and she can tell by how she signs. (2002)  In the McAllen Deaf co-op schools there are many Deaf students that come from Mexico where they use LSM (lengua senales de Mexico or Mexican Sign Language).  It is interesting because just like Hispanic hearing people who code switch and mix English and Spanish, so do these students mix ASL and LSM.  On a visit to the school last spring the teachers pointed out this characteristic.  McAllen is a border town in south Texas that is minutes away from Mexico.  There are many other Deaf cultural groups in the U.S. that bring their linguistic characteristics of ASL.  More sociolinguistic research needs to be done in this area.  

    Social status and educational level also plays a role in ASL linguistic variations among the Deaf community in the U.S.  Naturally this variable does not operate independently of other considerations, including the regional dimension just discussed.  We can speak of social status dialects of ASL in America as long as we realize that they do not exist in isolation from other social variables, including region, ethnicity, and historical aspects, among others. (Taylor 1986)  According to Bruce, educated Deaf individuals tend to sign more English order due to the fact that they have more contact with the English language. (2002)  Smith agrees and adds that they also tend to fingerspell more and their vocabulary is has more academic related signs.    Non-educated deaf use more ASL structure according to Taylor (1986).   Educated Deaf can rapidly switching from ASL to Signed English or contact signing in the presence of a hearing person compared to non-educated Deaf.

    Variation in sign languages has been a neglected area of research in sociolinguistics. There is enormous language diversity within the American Deaf community, and there are also many deaf communities across the United States. Despite the diversity, there is definitely a shared sense of ASL as a language used by Deaf people all across the country. Accompanying this shared sense are shared perceptions that signing varies from region to region and that African American signers sign differently than white signers. There is also a widespread belief that younger signers sign differently than older signers and that men and women differ in their signing. Finally, in the Deaf community, the perception is widespread that working-class Deaf people, whose educational backgrounds, employment patterns, and life experiences differ from those of middle-class Deaf professionals, sign differently as a function of social class. 


Bruce, J. (2002) Interview.  Lamar University.

Fischer, C.H. & Carroll, C.  (2002).  Orchids of the Bayou A Deaf Woman Faces Blindness.  Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Li, Y. (2002) Interview.  Lamar University.

Maxwell, M.M. & Todd, S.L. (1986)  Black Sign Language and School Integration in Texas.   Austin,Texas: Department of Speech Communication.

Smith, A. (2002) Interview. Lamar University.

Taylor, O.L. (1986)  Nature of Communication Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations.  San Diego, CA.: College Hills Press, Inc.

Woodward, J.C. (1974)  Black Southern signing. Washington, D.C.: Linguistics Research Lab, Gallaudet College.


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