Talk to the Hand, Or Should We Say, Hands?…Black Sign Language
We know some, but not all, African Americans use African American English (AAE), an expressive and nuanced dialect of American English. The same applies to the deaf community. As is the case for the hearing population in the U.S., the historical segregation in American communities and schools have played a major role in linguistic differences found between blacks and whites in the deaf community. Like their hearing African American counterparts, deaf African Americans experienced racial discrimination and marginalization, resulting in the development of a dialect of English signing different from white signing populations.
Researchers at the Black ASL Project have highlighted features of black American Sign Language (ASL). This signed language differs from that used by whites. For example, black signers tend to use two hands as opposed to one for certain signs. Two handed signs include “REMEMBER” and “DON’T-KNOW”. This is particularly evident in the Southern parts of the United States that were most affected by school segregation. African American signers also tend to sign certain words higher (at the forehead level) than whites typically do, such as “BLACK” and “TEACHER”. Certain lexical items from spoken African American English have also permeated the sign language of the black deaf community. Thus, younger black ASL speakers are signing words like “MY BAD”, “STOP TRIPPING”, “GIRL, PLEASE”, and “WASSUP”.
Since many deaf schools in the United States did not become de-segregated until the mid 1960s, researchers are studying these changes in the ASL linguistic system before and after integrative legislation to figure out what’s happened with black sign language since the integration of these schools. The Black ASL Project is comparing the signing of people who attended segregated deaf schools in the southern U.S. (North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia and Louisiana), to those who attended the same schools after they became integrated. We at Word. are looking forward to learning more about this African American variety of English.
To see black ASL in action, check out the videos on the Black ASL Project Facebook page.