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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.


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

By: Rogelio Contreras


     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 is based on three interviews with two Deaf adults, an interpreter, and several abstracts in sociolinguistics.  Two of the individuals interviewed 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 cultures.  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 has more academic-related signs.   Non-educated Deaf use more ASL structure according to Taylor (1986).   Educated Deaf can rapidly switch 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.


In a message dated 6/22/2016 12:57:41 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, a student writes:
​Hi Dr. Bill,
I've just been reading this article:
It says that educated Deaf tend to sign in English word order, while Deaf with less education sign closer to pure ASL.
Is that still true?
I was wondering because you are educated and (of course) sign ASL, with ASL structure.
- Grace

[Updated 5/31/2019]
[Edit:  While the question above is being directed to "me" -- it is important to note that "I" did not write the article being asked about. I'm simply responding to a student's question about someone else's article.]

Dear ________,

You ask "Is that still true?" 

Just because someone said it is (or was) true doesn't mean it is (or was) true.  You basically now have that person's opinion. 

The challenge of using a term like "educated" is that "education" tends to be biased in favor of the traditional mode of communication of the dominant group in a society.

When American academics use the term "educated" (in American society) they are usually referring to having attended school in general (and college in particular). American schools and colleges predominantly use spoken and written/printed English as the modes of communication. So, to a large extent, the act of becoming educated (in America) involves becoming familiar with the English terms for the topic in which a person is becoming educated.

To put it bluntly:
Psychology majors know big English words for psychology terms.
Math majors know big English words for math concepts.

I once met a fellow from South America who emigrated to America due to something to do with politics and the safety of his family.

He was seeking a position as a janitor.  However something didn't add up.  His English was minimal but when he discussed his wife's physical ailment he used "very large" very precise medical words (probably Latin - but I wouldn't know because I'm not in Latin).

Turns out that back in South America he was a medical doctor in charge of a wing of a hospital.

He was "technically" (very) educated.  Due to the fact that his knowledge of medical concepts was in a language other than that of the "dominant cultural group in society" -- he was functionally "uneducated."  Meaning?  He was unable to pass the (English-based) medical exams to become licensed to practice medicine in the United States.

My point is that in most societies the phrase "an educated person" is considered to be a person who has become familiar with a lot of labels (big, precise words) for the topics in which the person was educated, generally as a result of having attended a lot of school.

To reverse that logic: An uneducated American is therefore (in a roundabout way) one who has not become familiar with the labels (big precise words) to discuss a range of general topics (general education) or a specific topic (a college major).

Since (for better or worse) the dominant language in America is (a type of) English -- American society tends to evaluate and express "education" primarily through the use of English.

There are going to be people who take the above sentence out of context. REMEMBER: Educated doesn't mean smart. There are educated idiots. (You probably know some.)

Keep in mind, I'm not talking about the terms skilled, smart, intelligent, clever, witty, bright, or freaking brilliant -- which many (so called) "uneducated" Deaf are indeed.

I would rather have a skilled mechanic than an educated one work on my car.

Claiming that (in general) an educated Deaf person tends to sign more English is like claiming a swimmer tends to get wet.

Getting wet is not impressive. Signing English is not impressive.

They are just things that tend to happen when you go to a swimming pool and go to an American school.

A swimmer doesn't swim at a wedding reception or restaurant.

Likewise, an "educated" BILINGUAL Deaf person doesn't use "English-like Signing" when at a party with Deaf friends.

The cool thing about being bilingual is that you know (and can use) two languages.

What we humans "tend" to do is we use the most efficient tools at our disposal to accomplish our goals. Sure, if we need to hammer a nail and don't have a hammer we tend to use whatever tool we have laying around.

If a mono-lingual Deaf who signs English (and therefore fits well in the American education system) attends a Deaf party he/she is going to wade through conversations as best he/she can with Signed English since that is the only tool he/she has. When a bilingual Deaf person (who also does well in the American education system) attends that same party he/she will SWITCH to the most efficient tool (ASL) for communicating at that party.

I have never liked the term "pure ASL." What if I used the term "pure English?" Is English "poetry" pure English? What about the "Dick and Jane" reading series which included phrases such as, "See Spot run. Go Spot!" (and was used to help teach 85 million American first graders how to read (Warmbold, 1996)? Is that pure English? How about, "Hey dude! What's up?" -- is that pure English? Or is "pure English" a form of English that doesn't use words borrowed from other languages? No more spaghetti?
- Dr. Bill

Warmbold, Carolyn, (1996, Oct. 19), "See Dick, See Jane - Reflections Of Bygone Era," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retrieved 6/22/2016 <>

I think what most people mean when they refer to "pure ASL" is signing in which initialization* is minimized, depictive signing is maximized, WH-type signs are moved rightward, subject-pronouns are copied to the end of sentences, ...
-- I'm not going to finish this explanation since, gee, it would take a book-length discussion to cover all the aspects of what I think other people "think" constitutes "pure" ASL. Suffice to say, it is ASL that doesn't look much like English on the hands.

Initialization: (In ASL) The use of the handshape of a fingerspelled ASL letter (corresponding to the first letter of the related English word) as the handshape for a sign. - Dr. Bill

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