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Sociolinguistic variation and language contact in the Deaf Community


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Title: Sociolinguistic variation and language contact in the Deaf Community

Sociolinguistic variation and language contact in
the Deaf Community
  • Robert Adam
  • Postgraduate Researcher
  • Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre

The sociolinguistic variable
  • Fasold (1990) alternative ways of saying the
    same thing, although the alternatives will have
    social significance
  • Milroy (1987) the bits of language..associated
    with sex, area and age sub-groups in a
    complicated way a sociolinguistic variable is a
    linguistic element (phonological usually, in
    practice) which co-varies not only with other
    linguistic elements, but also with a number of
    extra-linguistic independent social variables
    such as social class, age, sex, ethnic group or
    contextual style.

Variable units in spoken languages
  • Segments of sounds/phonology assimilation,
    weakening, consonant deletion, substitution,
  • word-sized segments
  • Morphological units
  • Discourse units
  • Syntax
  • Variation is highly systematic

Variation in American Sign Language
  • Early observation of variation 1875 by the
    Principal of the Californian School for the Deaf
    in Berkeley which refers to lexical variation
  • Croneberg (1965) in the first dictionary of ASL
    refers to variation cultural and social aspects,
    economic status, patterns of social contact, and
    the factors that contribute to social cohesion
  • Refers to both horizontal (regional) variation
    and vertical variation (social stratification)
    being present in ASL

Pioneering research
  • Lexical variation
  • Woodward (1976) African Americans, Shroyer
    Shroyer (1984)
  • Phonological variation
  • Battison et al (1975) thumb extension in FUNNY,
    BLACK, BORING, CUTE - compositional features and
    not a relationship between linguistic variation
    and social factors,
  • Woodward et al (1976) face to hand variation
    where New Orleans signers produced certain signs
    on the face which Atlanta signers produced on the
  • Woodward and De Santis (1977) one handed/two
    handed forms of the sign - compositional
    variation. Southerners/non Southerners.
    Older/younger, African Americans/white signers

  • Diachronic variation
  • Historical change presents itself first in the
    form of variation different ways of saying the
    same thing whether those are sounds, parts of
    signs or grammatical structures, coexisting
    within the language.. Frishberg (1975)
  • Milroy (1992) eventually gives way to the
    use of one form to the exclusion of the other
  • Historical precedent change from Old English to
    Middle English to Modern English Latin to
    Romance languages - synchronic variation

Recent studies in ASL
  • Lexical variation more studies of social and
    occupational categories, gender differences,
    signs for sexual behaviour and drug use,
    interpreters, DeafBlind people
  • Phonological variation Metzger (1993) handshape
    of 2nd and 3rd person pronoun, Lucas (1995) DEAF,
    Pinky extension Hoopes (1998) and Kleinfeld and
    Warner (1996) signs used to denote gay, lesbian
    and bisexual persons correlation with persons
    own identity

  • Fingerspelling Battberg et al (1995) younger
    people use fingerspelling for proper nouns and
    English terms with no ASL equivalence but older
    people also resembled the use of locative signs,
    Maryland/Massachusetts in frequency of use,
  • Discourse Haas et al (1995) in relation to
    Deafblind backchanelling, turntaking and
    question forms. Touch is often substituted for

Other research
  • Woll and Sutton-Spence (1999) older signers used
    more fingerspelling and less clear mouthing
    patterns than younger people who showed more
    influence from English
  • Small number of Deaf families discontinuity
    between generations
  • Changes in the educational system for Deaf people
  • Changes in technology

  • Day (1995) found that signers from deaf and
    hearing families signed differently
  • Le Master and Dwyer (1991) differences in men
    and women in Irish Sign Language due to
    segregation of schools
  • Johnston, Schembri Goswell (2006) phonological
    variation of location. Signers (205) from a
    variety of backgrounds, learnt sign at age of 7
    THINK, NAME and CLEVER showed influence of
    linguistic and social factors - age, gender and
    region. Posed the question of lexical frequency.

  • It is probably true that no language group has
    ever existed in isolation from other language
    groups, and the history of languages is replete
    with examples of language contact leading to some
    form of bilingualism.
  • Grosjean (19821)

Deaf people are everywhere!
Useful reading
  • Ann, J. (2001). Bilingualism and Language
    Contact. In C. Lucas (Ed.), The Sociolinguistics
    of Sign Languages (33-60). Cambridge Cambridge
    University Press

Why am I interested in this area?
  • My father went to school at the Victorian School
    for Deaf Children, St Kilda, Melbourne,
  • His first language is Australian Sign Language
  • My mother and aunt went to school at St Marys
    Delgany, at Portsea, Victoria, Australia.
  • Her first language was Australian Irish Sign

What research has been done
  • Lots of research into how sign languages and
    spoken languages come into contact
  • But VERY little research into contact between
    sign languages.
  • David Quinto Pozos published the only PhD in the
    world on contact between sign languages ASL and
    Mexican sign languages on the USA-Mexico border

Example of spoken language bilingualism Canada
  • Canada is considered a bilingual country but most
    Canadians are monolingual.
  • There are many languages spoken but English and
    French are the most well known
  • There were laws which discriminated against
    French speakers
  • Until the 1960s French speakers were very poor
  • After that, French speakers became more
    politically aware and active.

  • Even though French and English are both world
    languages, both have never been at parity
  • One interesting outcome
  • The more bilingual our children become, the more
    they use English the more they use English, the
    less they find French useful the less they find
    French useful, the more they use English. The
    paradox of French-Canadian life is the following
    the more we become bilingual, the less necessary
    it is to be bilingual
  • Grosjean (198217)

Other bilingual countries
  • Belgium French speakers (Walloons) and the
    Flemish speakers (Flemings)
  • Singapore 77 Chinese, 15 Malay, 6 Indian, 2
    others. There are 4 main languages Mandarin,
    Malay, Tamil and English, but they are not all

Societal bilingualism Deaf Communities
  • Marthas Vineyard for 250 years this community
    had a high of deafness. The last person died in
    the 1950s. People learnt sign language in
    childhood and did not seem to be concerned that
    sign language was different
  • If there were more deaf than hearing there,
    everyone would speak sign language
  • Groce (198560)

Societal bilingualism Deaf Communities
  • Desa Kolok - Bali 43 kolok in a village of 2,000
    people everyone can sign and Deaf are full
    members of society.
  • Mayan village - Mexico. 13 Deaf in a village of
    400 people all hearing adults can sign. But Deaf
    have a lower marriage rate, and do not access the
    majority of discourse which is in Mayan.
  • No evidence that society forced a sense of
    majority/minority based on hearing status

Bilingualism in most of the Deaf world
  • Most Deaf people live in societies that are
    dominated by hearing people
  • This ensures that sign languages will come into
    contact with spoken languages eg schools
  • Research has shown that sign languages are full
    languages but many parts of the world have not
    caught up with research
  • There is a great diversity of bilingualism in the
    Deaf world.

Different kinds of sign bilingualism
  • Native signers of SL who are fluent in a spoken
    language (reading, writing and speaking)
  • Native signers of SL who read and write a spoken
    language fluently but do not speak it
  • Native signers of SL who are fluent to varying
    degrees in reading and writing a spoken language
  • Deaf signers of a SL as a second language who
    read and write a spoken language fluently but do
    not speak it
  • Second language signers who first learnt a signed
    version of a spoken language
  • Native signers of SL who learnt another sign
    language as a second language
  • First/second language SL signers who speak a
    spoken language

  • Function
  • Prestige
  • Literary heritage
  • Acquisition
  • Standardisation
  • Stability
  • Grammar
  • Lexicon
  • Phonology
  • Occurs when two varieties of one language exist
    in the same community H and L
  • Perhaps there is a diglossia in the Deaf
  • Deuchar (1984) Diglossia in British Sign Language

Language shift
  • Happens when a community give up their language
    and use another language
  • Examples native Americans. It happens in both
    immigrant and non-immigrant communities
  • Changes in BSL - a result of this?
  • loan vocabulary. Borrowing between signed
    languages not the same as borrowing between
    spoken languages
  • Fingerspelling - not English but from the
    orthographic (writing) system of English?

Loan phenomena in sign languages
  • Fingerspelt loan signs
  • Initialised signs
  • Syntax restrictions most are nouns. More nouns
    than verbs and not possible to inflect
    fingerspelt verbs
  • Loan vocabulary from sign languages with
    character signs Taiwanese sign languages
  • Mouthing adverbials, English mouthing

Code switching and code mixing
  • Both refer to a switch from one language to
  • Code switching across the borders of a sentence
  • Code mixing within a sentence
  • Does not refer to speaking only within a signed
  • Phonological, morphological, syntactical, lexical
    and pragmatic features are often produced
    simultaneously, assigning stretches of discourse
    to ASL or to English seems like a fruitless
    exercise and also misses the point. The point is
    a third system which combines elements of both
    languages and may also have some idiosyncratic
  • Lucas and Valli (1992108)

Code blending
  • Emmorey (2003) refers to code blending
  • Bimodal (sign-speech) bilingualism differs from
    unimodal (speech-speech) bilingualism with
    respect to the temporal sequencing of languages
    during code-mixing.
  • ASL-English bilinguals produce code-blends,
    rather than code-switches. Bimodal bilinguals do
    not stop speaking to sign or stop signing to
    speak. Sign and speech is simultaneous when in a
    bilingual mode of communication. In general,
    code-blends are semantically equivalent in ASL
    and English

  • There is a lot of language contact between spoken
    and sign language communities
  • There are parallels with many spoken language