This paper examines phonological variation in the American Sign Language (ASL) used by African American and white signers in Louisiana. The paper is part of a larger project based on casual conversation filmed in seven sites around the United States, including Louisiana, with 207 working-class and middle-class participants from three age groups (15-25, 26-54, and 55+) (Lucas, Bayley & Valli, 2001). We examine three phonological variables: 1) the sign DEAF, produced in citation form (+cf, the form found in sign language dictionaries and taught in sign language classes) with a movement from the ear to the chin but also produced variably from the chin to the ear or simply as a contact on the cheek; 2) signs like KNOW, which are produced at the forehead in citation form but which can move down and be produced on the cheek or even in the space in front of the signer; and 3) signs produced with the 1 handshape (citation form: index extended, all other fingers and thumb closed), which can be produced with a variety of handshapes including L (thumb extended) and 5 (all fingers open).
When analyzed separately, the Louisiana data reveal several interesting results. For two variables, DEAF and the location of signs like KNOW, African Americans use more citation forms than whites. The results for DEAF are particularly striking in that they show a sharp difference between African American men and women. African American men choose the citation form of DEAF 52% of the time; the Louisiana African American women in our study never use the citation form of DEAF. In contrast to the results for DEAF, the Louisiana results for the two other phonological variables match those for the larger national study. For signs like KNOW African Americans in Louisiana and other areas use more citation forms than white signers, while ethnicity is not significant for 1 handshape signs.
Results such as these highlight the role of schools for the Deaf in the transmission of ASL. In Louisiana, as in other Southern states, schools for the Deaf were segregated until the Civil Rights era. As elsewhere in the United States, ASL was banished from white classrooms in the South, beginning in the later part of the nineteenth century and continuing until the 1970s. However, as Baynton states, "oral education was clearly not extended to blacks on the same basis as whites" (1996: 45). The fact that African Americans continued to be educated primarily through ASL had the ironic result that many received a better education than most white deaf students (Baynton 1996: 180). Another result appears to be that many African Americans continue to use a more standard form of ASL.
The results also highlight the need for more in-depth studies of local communities than was possible in our own broad study of ASL as used across the U.S. Given the importance of state schools in the transmission of ASL and the distinct histories of African American and white schools in the South, further studies of African American and white signing in the South have a key role to play in advancing our understanding of the factors that influence variation in signed languages and language variation more generally.
Baynton, D. C. 1996. Forbidden signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago
Lucas, C., R. Bayley, and C. Valli. 2001. Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet