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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

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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

Learn the sign language of physics, male genitalia

A couple of years ago, Scientific American's Ferris Jabr wrote a really fascinating story about the sign language of science. Along the way, he touched on an issue I'd never thought of before. Turns out, a lot of technical, scientific terms haven't made their way into official sign language vocabulary. At the same time, these words are often far too long to bother fingerspelling. The solution: Translators at scientific conferences invent signs, often on the fly.

Not surprisingly, though, that can get confusing. What if two translators use different signs for the same word? That's why the Scottish Sensory Centre has taken the time to standardize translations of 119 words from the world of physics into British Sign Language. The the new signs will make it easier for Deaf students to understand what they're learning in science class, and make physics more open to them as a career choice.

The glossary builds on existing signs used by the deaf community and on "the visual or metaphorical relationship to what the things are like in real life", explains O'Neill.

The signs also build on one another to help convey the scientific relationships between the terms. The sign for mass, for example, is a fist which is then used as a basis for the sign for density (a hand around the fist) and weight (the hand and fist moving downwards).

Coincidentally, within minutes of spotting this story, I came across another bit of specialized sign language vocabulary. In a tweet, mjrobbins linked to a poster that provides everything you need to know to talk about a man's naughty bits in (I think) British Sign Language.

See the poster (NSFW, probably)

Read the rest of the story about the new sign language physics vocabulary at New Scientist

HOW TO: Spell with your fingers in different languages

Last year, I stumbled across some of the cool history of American Sign Language, documenting how it evolved out of both formal and informal languages—systems Deaf children used to communicate at home, and the systems they were taught as Deaf schools drew diverse groups from a wide geographical range. For American Sign Language, this process happened in the 19th century. In other parts of the world, it's still ongoing. For instance, in Nicaragua, Deaf people who are in school now are learning a much more formalized language, with a much bigger vocabulary, than those who went to school in the 1980s.

Those international differences are fascinating to me, so I'm really pleased to find this post on the Sinosplice blog, discussing the Chinese system of finger spelling. The blogger there is a linguist, so there's a lot of neat perspective in the linked post and others on the linguistic mechanics of finger spelling and sign language in China.

Finger spelling is very different from a sign language. In a sign language, you'd have one hand movement or hand position that stands for the concept "bird." In finger spelling, you'd have several different movements/positions for each letter or sound of the word "bird." You probably picked up some American finger spelling from Sesame Street, it's likely to at least look somewhat familiar. But the really cool thing about this post, is that it contrasts that system with the finger spelling alphabets used in Russia, Japan, and several that have been used historically in China. That's the US system above. Below, the modern Chinese system that corresponds to the pinyin, a way of transcribing printed Chinese words into Roman letters.

Via Kerim Friedman