Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL

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.

Education Needed

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.

We Are Still Here: The Yuchi Language Project


Yuchi (Euchee) is a unique language spoken by the Yuchi people, who were forcibly relocated from Tennessee, Georgia and other neighboring states to Oklahoma in the 1800s. Today the number of first-language Yuchi speakers has dwindled to just four, and all of those speakers are above the age of 80.

A Unique Language

Yuchi is a fascinating language. It is not known to be related to any other language on the planet, and there was no written alphabet until the 1970s. There are 49 phonetic sounds (38 consonant sounds and 11 vowel sounds), which is twice the number of most Indigenous languages from the Southeast.

It also has different speeches for males and females, and today the number of first-language male speakers is down to only one. From Yuchi.org:

The language more than has gender — in fact it is very nearly two different languages — a men’s speech and a women’s speech. The way something is said in these two variations is often quite different. Further, Yuchean not only has tenses, but it varies its structure according to whether a Yuchi is talking or a non-Yuchi is talking, preserving contexts of time and circumstance. All these variations can add a number of complicating layers to the grammar and the effort needed to master it.

Efforts to Save Yuchi

The short documentary above is a beautiful look at how the community is attempting to keep the language alive by fully immersing young people in the language at the Euchee Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Also of interest is their site dedicated to the non-profit, where you can donate, listen to audio and learn more about the Yuchi language.

"What we want, what we need in our communities, what our goal is, is to keep alive our languages so our young people will have breath-to breath knowledge of their traditions, of their ceremonies, of their medicines, of the stars." - Dr. Richard Grounds
As they say, ÔnzO yUdjEha gO’wAdAnA-A n@wadOnô - “Our Yuchi language will not die.”

Everybody in Almost Every Language Says “Huh”? HUH?!

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.

andbrittlebones:

Hi friends! I’m not good at much and therefore try to offer advice as little as possible, but if there’s one thing I’m sort of qualified to give advice on, it’s language learning. If you’re learning (or about to begin learning) a language that you believe you’re going to be aiming at working in or writing in and becoming fluent in (and as we all know some of the ones we study just aren’t destined to be learned fluently), then I really really suggest you bust your butt a little bit to have something like this. Basically, I suggest building your own dictionary of words you learn or work with, in their own respective lexical categories (noun, verb, adjective etc) and with the forms or information you need. For me right now, it’s German, but I think I might do the same with French (which I’ve been speaking for around eight years now) for vocabulary. For me, I find it a lot easier to find things if I know how I laid them out, and it gives you more exposure to them while you type them out! I tried just a simple Word document with colours to signify gender but as you can imagine it got way out of hand. For now, I’ve just been entering words from the handy glossary that came with my textbook, but I’ve also been wanting to enter things like country names and the words I look up for my assignments. 

Verb chart is:

English — Germ. infinitive — separable prefix (if any) — past participle — chapter

Noun chart:

English - German singular (with gendered pronoun) - plural - chapter

This is just from my experience of studying six languages in the past eight years. It’ll help you learn how to type in the language too, and the multiple columns allows you to view them however you want. It’s a lot of work to start (I’ve been entering words for weeks!) but I think it’ll be really useful as time goes on.

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.
Cultural Anthropology on Miyako Inoue’s essay, “The Listening Subject of Japanese Modernity and His Auditory Double,” which examines “women’s language” in Japanese modern society. (Link)