We’re all aware of the large number of dialects that make up our spoken languages around the world. But with many ignorant of the fact that separate forms of sign language exist in different countries, there’s even less education on the different dialects that populate specific sign language families.
Black ASL Origins
Take American Sign Language, for example. The Washington Post tells the story of Carolyn McCaskill, who in 1968 enrolled with nine other Deaf black students in a newly integrated school for the Deaf. From the Post:
When the teacher got up to address the class, McCaskill was lost.
“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill recalls through an interpreter. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”
The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, just a few miles away. It wasn’t a simple matter of people at the new school using unfamiliar vocabulary; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.
Today we know that McCaskill grew up using what is now called Black American Sign Language. This form is known for using more two-handed signs than American Sign Language, with Black ASL featuring a higher location of signs (at the forehead level) and a larger space used compared to ASL.
Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explains and demonstrates the differences in ASL and Black ASL here:
Sign language is not universal. The different dialects need to be studied independently, just as one would study spoken languages. We can help spread this message by supporting education on the subject, such as the Black ASL Project. Another great resource is this interview conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education with Joseph Hill, who hopes awareness will make sign language a bigger part of the linguistics community.
In Smithsonian Magazine this month is a great article by Arika Okrent about research conducted on the widespread use of “huh” amongst different languages and cultures. From the article:
"Huh? appears to be anything but arbitrary. Dingemanse’s team has already confirmed the similarities with speech transcripts from 21 additional languages, many of them unrelated. Are the researchers sure that huh? will turn up in every language in the world? “No,” Dingemanse says. “But we are ready to place bets.”
In addition, the initial researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have set up an extremely helpful site with their paper, a FAQ and more that can be found here.
On the face of it, language may seem innocent enough—nothing but a passive and transparent means of communication: a convenient way to transmit a “message” from one person to another. Yet closer inspection reveals that language involves much more than this; language actively creates social worlds, identities and relationships. It does not passively reflect on a pre-given world, but actively fashions it according to historical conventions. And, as Pierre Bourdieu points out, language also reproduces social relations of dominance and inequality; it is intimately bound to the production of subalternity: to the making of social relationships which are structured in dominance.