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American Speech 76.4 (2001) 339-361

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Lexical Variation In African American And White Signing

Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, Ruth Reed, Alyssa Wulf
Gallaudet University, University of Texas, & San Antonio


THIS ARTICLE, PART of a larger study of phonological, morphosyntactic, and lexical variation in American Sign Language (ASL), examines lexical differences in the ASL varieties used by African American and white signers. Our goal is to reexamine claims made about the correlation of lexical variation with ethnicity as well as claims pertaining to the course of language change (see, e.g., Woodward 1976). Specifically, we examine three questions: (1) Are there lexical differences between African American and white signing? (2) What are the processes of change reflected in the varieties of ASL used by African American and white signers? (3) How does lexical innovation differ from phonological variation in the lexicon?

To answer these questions, we focus on the responses of ASL signers to picture and fingerspelled stimuli designed to elicit specific lexical items. 1 The elicitation task was part of a much larger study of sociolinguistic variation in ASL, described later in the paper. A brief review of research on lexical variation in ASL and African American signing demonstrates that the same kinds of issues that characterize lexical variation in spoken languages also characterize lexical variation in ASL, for example, phonological variation within the lexicon and occurrences of rapid lexical innovation related to changes in social norms.

Previous Research

LEXICAL VARIATION. Users and observers of ASL have been aware of variation in the language for a long time, and evidence of this awareness can be seen in writings about deaf people's language use. For example, Warring Wilkinson (1875), principal of the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, wrote about how "the sign language" comes about: [End Page 339]

The deaf mute child has mental pictures. He wants to convey similar pictures to his friends. Has speech a genesis in any other fact or need? In the natural order of thought the concrete always precedes the abstract, the subject its attribute, the actor the act. So the deaf mute, like the primitive man, deals primarily with things. He points to an object, and seizing upon some characteristic or dominant feature makes a sign for it. When he has occasion to refer to that object in its absence, he will reproduce the gesture, which will be readily understood, because the symbol has been tacitly agreed upon. Another deaf mute, seeing the same thing, is struck by another peculiarity, and makes another and different sign. Thus half a dozen or more symbols may be devised to represent one and the same thing, and then the principle of the "survival of the fittest" comes in, and the best sign becomes established in usage. [37]

Wilkinson's statement provides some evidence of early awareness of lexical variation, at least among educators of the deaf. However, systematic research did not begin until the 1960s, with Carl Croneberg's two appendices to the Dictionary of American Sign Language (DASL 1965). "The Linguistic Community" (Croneberg 1965a) describes the cultural and social aspects of the deaf community and discusses the issues of economic status, patterns of social contact, and the factors that contribute to group cohesion. These factors include the extensive personal and organizational networks that ensure frequent contact even among people who live on opposite sides of the country. "Sign Language Dialects" (Croneberg 1965b) addresses sociolinguistic variation, specifically as it pertains to the preparation of a dictionary:

One of the problems that early confronts the lexicographers of a language is dialect, and this problem is particularly acute when the language has never before been written. They must try to determine whether an item in the language is "standard," that is, used by the majority of a given population, or "dialect," that is, used by a particular section of the population. [313]

Croneberg outlines the difference between what he terms "horizontal variation" (regional variation) and "vertical variation" (variation that occurs in the language of groups separated by social...


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pp. 339-360
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Archived 2005
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