Black American sign language and American sign language are different languages

I've been fascinated by the history and development of sign language for a while now. Highly linked to local Deaf cultures, individual sign languages have deep roots in the home-made systems people came up with in order to communicate with one another and with their families at times when Deaf people were often a lot more socially isolated than they are today. That means that each sign language is unique — even British and American sign language aren't at all the same thing. English is spoken in both countries, but the cultural history that gave birth to sign was sufficiently different to produce two completely different languages that are unintelligible to one another. (Meanwhile, American sign language is much closer to French, because it also has roots in a system imported from France in the 19th century.)

In that case, it was a physical distance that lead to the development of two different sign languages. But, within the United States, the same thing happened because of social distance. Turns out, there is a Black American sign language that is distinctly different, as a language, from ASL. Its roots lie in segregation, and especially in separate-and-not-at-all-equal school systems. Ironically, though, that meant sign language had a more prominent place in black schools for much of the 20th century. At white schools, up until the 1970s and 1980s, students were heavily pressured to speak and lip-read, rather than sign — because it was thought to be better. Meanwhile, at black schools, sign language continued to be heavily used, growing and changing. By the late 1960s, the two systems were almost completely different languages.

Carolyn McCaskill remembers exactly when she discovered that she couldn’t understand white people. It was 1968, she was 15 years old, and she and nine other deaf black students had just enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Ala.

... 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 vocabularly; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.

...So, McCaskill says, “I put my signs aside.” She learned entirely new signs for such common nouns as “shoe” and “school.” She began to communicate words such as “why” and “don’t know” with one hand instead of two as she and her black friends had always done. She copied the white students who lowered their hands to make the signs for “what for” and “know” closer to their chins than to their foreheads. And she imitated the way white students mouthed words at the same time as they made manual signs for them.

Read the full story at The Washington Post

Martha's Vinyard: Birthplace of American Deaf Culture
What the invention of Nicaraguan sign language teaches us about the human brain
How To: Spell with your fingers in different languages
CWA: Your language is your worldview
The sign language of science
Learn the sign language of physics, male genitalia

Via Stan Carey


  1. Okay, I have to ask, and I mean no disrespect at all–why is Deaf being capitalized in this post? I’m honestly wanting to learn more about this issue. AP says to lowercase unless mentioning the proper name of an organization (i.e., National Association of the Deaf).

    The argument here being that every group should then be capitalized, Disabled, Autistic, Working Poor, Blue Bloods, Dog Owners, Cinemaphiles, etc.

    Should groups be catered to according to their referential preferences?

    1.  “Should groups be catered to according to their referential preferences?”

      In general, yes, you should cater to them.  Unless there is something inherently dishonest about the preferred name (I don’t have any examples, but I could see this being an issue), call people what they want to be called.  It’s basic decency.

      1. See, you’re making a value judgement, but you missed the issue, which is why is Deaf singled out with capitalization when other groups are not.

        1. Sweetcraspy didn’t miss the issue at all, you did. 

          I agree that people should generally be referred to in the way they prefer. If a large number of people with autism express a desire to have that condition capitalized, I don’t have a problem with that either. If they don’t I won’t. What’s the big deal?

          1. “What’s the big deal?” That is exactly my question. sweetcraspy’s comment immediately went to putting a judgment on why I asked “It’s basic decency.” I didn’t ask the question to invoke an emotional response–I wanted a reasoned argument.

            My mistake was expecting one on the internets. Forgive me for being provocative.

          2. I sincerely hope that I would have guessed that “it’s basic decency” was part of the simple explanation that this is a rule of etiquette, before deciding that it was a personal attack because everything is all about me.

        2. Because members of the Deaf community prefer that structure.  This isn’t a style manual question, it’s a self identity question. 

          If there’s community that conveys a clearly convey unified preference, it is appropriate to comply with that preference.  If there is more individual variety, it’s appropriate to take your cue from the person you are speaking to, and to politely accept if they correct you.

          If a style manual disagrees with the individual or community, ignore it in that circumstance.  The style manual doesn’t have authority over self identity.

    2. Because its a cultural identity with its own language, and an old history, like Italian, or English. This was previously unknown/ignored. When we saw that American Sign Language was processed in the brain identically to spoken language, it became important to differentiate the idea of describing someone by the amount they could hear “deaf” and the way they belonged to that culture. For instance someone who has typical hearing but is raised by within a Deaf family/community is culturally Deaf. Its neither a preference nor a dishonest label, its apt.

    3. Should groups be catered to according to their referential preferences?

      “Catered to”?  Oh, those deaf people and their deaf agenda!  Demanding that we cater to their lifestyle choice!  Taking all the good stuff from regular people!

  2. Fortunate that she had an intact language system. Her acquisition of a second language would be no different than someone who spoke English learning to use Spanish in High School.

    1. It sounded like it wasn’t as far off as learning Spanish – more like learning Scots (as a new primary language, rather than as a badly-taught academic subject.)

      1. Stabbed.  The idiot perp thought the group at the other table (who were speaking ASL) were flashing gang signs, she flashed her gang’s signs back at them, they waved her off, she felt dissed and went and got a couple of her buddies and came back and stabbed them.

  3. The one thing that gives me pause is that the article does not describe a different language, but a dialectical variation.The same way Black American English and American English are dialectical variants, and linguistically not separate languages. Its also interesting that the examples given of the differences in BASL word use and ASL word use are exact to the differences in American English and Black American Dialect.

    1.  and I have deaf friends regardless of cultural background who use those words in those ways in conversation. I assumed it was the hearing culture influencing use. So there are a lot of interesting questions here.

      1. The article talked about a lot of differences that weren’t just influences from hearing culture.  The two main ones that I noticed were that white deaf culture spent the 70s and 80s being pushed toward oralism, including having deaf people mouth words and lip-read with each other in addition to or instead of signing (which the Black ASL speakers didn’t adopt), and that the white ASL switched to smaller arm motions as they moved back to signing again.  (You might argue that that’s similar to the tendency for at least some groups black Americans to speak louder than white Americans, but that appears to be pretty much coincidence.)

  4. Ramone,  For one thing, “Deaf” is preferrable to “hearing impaired,” which most culturally Deaf members dislike, but it is a preferred label by hard of hearing people. Due to their limited hearing, most hard of hearing people identify with the hearing culture, but notice I did not capitalize the H in hard of hearing or hearing.  For another reason, the term “deaf” can apply to any person with any degree/level of hearing loss but it doesn’t imply necessarily that every “deaf” person identifies with Deaf culture.  Culturally Deaf members, that is, those who accept ASL as their primary language, and adopt the values, behaviors, and beliefs of that culture, along with its rich history and social mores, distinguish themselves as Deaf rather than “deaf.” Interestingly, Deaf culture is unique in that it is the only “disability” that has a culture.  Think about it–no other disability identifies themselves as having a culture, ie, possessing their own language or rules of behavior, etc.

  5. Brilliant, thank you! Apart from these serious variances, I’ve been shocked by mere eye contact differences, especially after undergoing the weird Seattle experience that sharpens (the hearings’) peripheral vision enough that you communicate even less, directly. What brought this eye contact thing home to me was sitting in the Seattle Public Library near an engaging deaf librarian.

    P.S.: Is the acutening of the peripheral vision a Seattle/Nordic thing or an age thing?

  6. Sign languages should be all the same. Every sign expresses an action, feeling etc. which is the same action or feeling in every language/culture. I really didn’t know that there are more than one sign language.

    1. you’re thinking in terms of gesture, when the jewel of sign language is the revelation of a fundamental organic neurologic difference between “language” and “gesture”. Meaning there is an identical separate process that occurs for every human, shared abstraction of experience, regardless of vast variances in acquisition.

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