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Talk to the Hand, Or Should We Say, Hands?…Black Sign Language

January 7, 2011

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.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. kenneth.A.phiri permalink
    March 22, 2011 11:08 am

    iam deaf man yes i myself want learn ASL OR i want to USA for a job

  2. Casey W permalink
    April 10, 2011 10:22 pm

    I recently ran into an article about a deaf hip-hop group (among many that have emerged) that performs using Black American Sign Language. Here’s the article for those that are interested:

    This article is about a deaf hip hop artist who goes by the name Def Thug. He has been performing for the past 20 years!

  3. Joelle Blackstock permalink
    April 13, 2011 11:28 pm

    I’m not really surprised that African Americans are able to develop their own African American Sign Language because I think that African American english is not just about speaking using your mouth. It could also include hand signals and gestures. For example, the nod of the head towards someone you know as a way to hello or “whas up.” Then there is the fist closed raised to the sky as a way to say Black Power. Also black sororities and fraternities use their own hand symbols as well such as the pyramid of Delta Sigma Theta.

    Then every time Jay Z throws up the diamond at his concerts as a symbol of his Roc-a-fella record label and fame, the audience participates in a call response (function familiar to AAE) when they throw up their diamonds as well. Also, when one confronts adversity, all you have to do is brush your shoulder off as a way to say that you are wiping away confrontation and not paying any attention to it.

    Then imagine that every time black men greet each other or affirm what each other is saying, they exchange a “dap” using their hands. Even President Obama is seen using a fist bump, the new high five. Thus AAE is unique because it includes a way to say something without actually saying it.

  4. Amy A permalink
    April 19, 2011 9:37 pm

    One aspect of this article that I found interesting was the fact that it takes into account a minority (deaf people) within a minority (African Americans). It is also just another example of how language is tied to both identity and history. Historically, AAE and black ASL seem to have developed in parallel, alongside each other, while “Standard” English and ASL developed next to each other as well, with the African American dialects separated from the “standard” dialects. Because African Americans were segregated historically, their language developed differently in both the deaf and hearing African American communities. It would be interesting to know more about how users of black ASL feel about their dialect of ASL. It seems that black ASL might be one way to connect deaf African Americans to hearing ones because they share similar vocabulary, like “stop tripping,” which is unique to AAE and black ASL. I would like to know more about the similarities between AAE and black ASL, and how black ASL is used to signal identity.

    I also just found videos of people using black ASL on the Black ASL Project’s facebook page, if anyone is interested in getting a better idea of what black ASL looks like in use.!/pages/Black-ASL-Project/163004363718519?sk=app_2392950137

  5. Angelica permalink
    April 20, 2011 1:53 pm

    I found this article extremely surprising and intriguing. I was not aware of the existence of Black ASL, but in hindsight, should have expected it; all languages have dialects, or variations from the “standard.” ASL is a language, albeit a silent one, with grammatical and lexical elements, so dialects such as Black ASL must therefore coexist with it. The fact that Black ASL uses both hands more frequently, and at a higher level when signing, can be likened to any person with an accent- although there are slight variations in the manner of expression, mutual intelligibility is not hindered.
    I also find it fascinating how language contact has affected black ASL. Lexical innovations such as “my bad” have managed to permeate into a world of silence from pop culture, which, to me, is simply beautiful. I am curious to find out how and if black ASL is used outside the South, and where it is most prominent.

  6. Sereetta A. permalink
    April 21, 2011 4:44 pm

    I found this article truly intriguing. Its not often you think about sign language unless you encounter it on a daily basis. While living in Ghana I met US missionaries who were working with the local deaf population and one of the major problems they encountered was acknowledging and accepting that there is no universal sign language. It varies drastically country to country and now we are learning it varies within ones own country. Now I’m wondering how African Americans deaf children have been affected in classroom?

  7. Ko S. permalink
    April 23, 2011 1:48 pm

    From watching the videos on the Black ASL Project Facebook page, the black ASL looks very similar to the ASL I saw being used by students everyday at my high school. My high school in California has a substantial Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) community, since it is the only public high school in the county with a DHH program.
    Most of the students come by bus from 28 different school districts in the county. While I do not remember seeing any African American DHH students, the large majority of them were Hispanic.
    These students were integrated wonderfully into the school. I made close relationships with DHH students even with the communication barrier since they attended the same events/activities/classes, were represented in the Associated Student Body, and played sports like everyone else. They were easily made a part of the community, as a translator was always present to sign what was said.
    The article makes me wonder if there may be a correlation between dialects of minority sign languages, like how similarities exist between certain spoken minority dialects, and if they too have experienced discrimination and marginalization for their own Hispanic sign dialect. Regardless, it is seems almost organic that racial groups and different cultures ultimately make language their own, whether spoken or signed.

  8. A.Lebeis permalink
    April 26, 2011 1:09 pm

    I was very excited to read this article! Last semester I took an ASL course at NYU and visited a Deaf Baptist church. As I am neither Deaf nor Baptist, it was quite a surprising and intriguing introduction to both of these communities. The preacher and the majority of those in attendance were Aftrican American. I received an extremely warm reception and carried on conversation in ASL with a variety of different people. As the preacher and his wife explained to me how the morning would proceed, I immediately recognized something I had never seen in class or amongst members of the white Deaf Community–two-handed signing. At first I thought it was just an idosyncracy of the signer, but then I observed other people in the church doing the same. I also noticed that a lot of the signs I was familiar with appeared exaggerated. I’m not sure if this was just the context of the sermon or if it is typical of African American Sign Language. This article has definitely inspired me to explore this dialect of ASL further!

  9. Kate W. permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:11 am

    I studied American Sign Language my first two years of college, and I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about people who are deaf and hard of hearing. In my first class, I felt silly when I learned that the same sign language was not used in all places, so reading this article even expands on that to see how people really make sign language their own. Signs for certain objects come and go as time goes on, so it’s only seems natural that dialects would have their own signs as well to reflect on the time period. As a non-AAE speaker I can still understand it, so it would be interesting to see how other signers interpret AAE-ASL, or if it would be difficult considering the two hands, different signs, etc.

  10. Na X. permalink
    April 28, 2011 1:14 pm

    Wow, I am completely stunned. I never knew signed AAE even existed. The fact that there are signed words that corresponded to spoken words such as “My Bad” or “Stop Tripping” is just completely fascinating. Just recently, I learned that everybody has an accent, even those from the hearing community. But an actual differentiation between standard ASL and a dialect of ASL reflects the diversity of language and the linear correlation between ethnicity and language. I think the extent of AAE from oral to signed language shows the complexity of AAE. This article is a wonderful start of reflecting the misconception of depicting AAE as a slang or wrong language. What I would be interested to find out next is whether signed AAE is as stigmatized as spoken AAE. I also can’t wait to see more research on the similarity/difference in ASL between pre and post integration, and the effects of racial marginalization had on the deaf education.

  11. Sylvia R-D permalink
    April 29, 2011 12:47 pm

    As someone who has always been intrigued by sign language, I found this article on variations within ASL extremely interesting. I had understood that sign language is non-universal and that many countries have their own variety according to their spoken language. However, it had never occurred to me that there may be varieties even within those national sign languages. It makes sense that a group like deaf African Americans who experienced such tremendous segregation and isolation would develop their own dialect of ASL. As Amy A. points out, this article is really discussing a minority within a minority (it’s like, double the minority), and as history has shown us, minority groups often form dense networks within which a distinct variety of language is born. I now wonder if there are other distinct varieties of sign language in other countries that have experienced segregation.
    I also wonder how these speakers of black ASL identify. I’ve often heard about the tremendous struggle African Americans with physical disabilities face as they deal with discrimination in soceity on two separate levels. However, it’s hard to say if people with disabilities or people with hearing impairments feel more connected with the deaf community or with the African American community. Perhaps the answer is that they feel most connected with the emerging community of black ASL speakers that bisects both the deaf and the Arican American community. If research hasn’t already been done on this, I hope it is examined sometime in the near future.

  12. Kate L permalink
    April 29, 2011 8:23 pm

    As a Linguistics major and ASL minor, I have developed a profound interest in the Deaf community and its multi-faceted use of American Sign Language. While I was already aware of the fact that the way in which ASL is used by different signers is reflective of variables such as age, class, and region, I have never really considered how African American English might influence ASL. With regards to the article, I am fascinated by the idea that minority users of a language are doing linguistic work to differentiate themselves from the majority. As language is often used as a means of conveying one’s identity, history, and personality, I think it is beautiful that African American sign language users have been able to craft ASL to reflect their ties to the ethnic community in which they also take part. Having attended a mass in ASL heavily attended by the Deaf Puerto Rican community members, I can see some correlations between the ASL used by these two ethnic communities and the language I am being taught in school by white professors. It apparent that language is never stagnant, even when not spoken.

  13. Rachel R permalink
    May 1, 2011 12:41 pm

    I find this interesting on a number of levels. First, outside of race, many people fail to see how sign language really is a completely different language from spoken languages, and that deaf people have their own culture and rules, just as different spoken languages are very culturally dependent. This shows that more than anything–signs are not just signs, but filled with emotion and meaning that replace the variables included in vocal expression. My mom taught deaf children for many years before the school she worked at closed, and she had a lot of first-hand experience with children of various levels of hearing, both completely deaf and hard-of-hearing, and how they communicated with each other and with her. The students that were hard of hearing would speak when they could when they knew their audience was hearing, like my mom, because they recognized that speaking was the dominant form of communication.

    Deaf people are already a minority, and hearing impairment is a disability that can make communication with the hearing world difficult without an interpreter. Compounding that with race adds a whole other level of separation between the people in power and the “other.” Since the deaf community is small, and the African American deaf community is probably even smaller, it makes sense that they would create their own variation on signing in order to feel that in-group comfort that everyone always seeks. For speakers of Standard English, it’s not difficult to find other people that speak like them. However, deaf African Americans are extremely limited to finding people who “speak” like them, and signature differences between their sign language and mainstream ASL probably help them form a stronger group identity and makes it easier for them to spot someone with similar cultural experiences.

  14. Megan Fountain permalink
    May 3, 2011 6:25 pm

    I think Black ASL is really interesting. Even in the signing community, every signer has a voice and an accent. It makes sense that an African American dialect would develop, especially considering that schools where ASL was taught were segregated until fairly recently. I echo the question another commenter asked, whether AASL (how’s that for an acronym?) is as stigmatized as spoken AAE. It’s also great to see how language evolves, no matter the medium. Signs for “my bad” and “wassup” have been integrated from spoken language into sign language fairly quickly.

    I spoke to my friend who is studying ASL and deaf education at a university with a large African American population. I don’t know if she had learned about black sign language in class, but she was certainly familiar with it from talking with her classmates. I was really surprised by this post because I had never thought about it before but she just said, “yeah, I learned the sign for ‘trippin’.”

  15. Eldrick Seaver permalink
    May 5, 2011 2:57 pm

    I think this is extremely interesting. It certainly speaks to how identity and social circumstances are related to language in that segregation played a role in shaping a dialect of sign language, just as social circumstances shaped the linguistic development of non-deaf African Americans. Now, some of the circumstances that helped shape auditory AAE were probably the same as those that shaped AASL, but there is definitely no way that they were identical circumstances. Therefore, the parallels in development and the resulting dialects begs the question, what other than social circumstances underlies the development of language that makes AASL similar to AAE? I guess it could possibly still be social circumstances but it would have to be circumstances that preceded a split between the general African American community and the Deaf African American community. If I knew more about the history of African Americans, I might be able to find some concrete answers, however I do not and it really makes me wonder about how words like “trippin” or “wassup” can end up in the vernacular of a people who never hear other people saying it.

  16. African American English permalink*
    September 24, 2012 2:20 pm

    For those of you interested in learning more about Black ASL, check out this new article from the Washington Post.

  17. November 11, 2012 3:15 pm

    I’m deaf man I really love black asl

  18. Melissa Duvelsdorf permalink*
    November 13, 2013 6:26 pm

    As an American Sign Language minor, none of my professors have ever mentioned dialects of ASL within America other than regional ones. However, this shouldn’t shock me considering that no one learns in school growing up that African American English is a widely spoken language within American English. When learning ASL in a college setting, it’s fairly limited because you only learn the language from a very few people. I feel a bit robbed of my education of this language because I haven’t been exposed to many fluent signers; it’s as if you grew up learning one language through exposure from only a handful of people and expecting to become fluent in it and understand everyone you communicate with. My biggest concern is that if I feel robbed of an education, how do deaf African American students in a classroom feel, especially if no one in their family communicates in ASL, or BSL? Would they feel robbed of more than their education? Their culture as well? After reading this post, I’ll definitely be more conscious of other people signing when in a public space with deaf signers. Hopefully I’ll be exposed to Black Sign Language to notice the differences and appreciate the development of a culture rich in history, just like African American English.

  19. Myles B. permalink
    December 1, 2013 9:36 am

    I find it fascinating that this exists. I believe it shows how language is not just based upon words – written, spoken, or signed – but more importantly, it’s based on culture and emotion. Furthermore, it’s fitting that a black ASL has its own rules separate from ASL, just as African American English has its own rules separate from Standard American English. In fact, from reading this article it appears to me that people in the sign language community recognize black ASL as a legitimate form of sign language. To me, this would imply that black ASL must be based off of a legitimate language (African American English!). But African American English is not as well accepted. I wonder why black ASL has more legitimacy than spoken African American English. Why should legitimacy differ for a language, whether spoken or signed? Perhaps this is because black ASL is wrongly seen as merely a form of communication between black peers, rather than something that’s formal and used in academia. My hope is that both can be popular and legitimate.

    This also reminds me how major music festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza now have ASL interpreters on the side of the stage, for deaf concert goers. They’ve become very popular on youtube recently, particularly for rappers. Here is one that got a lot of attention:

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