(an excerpt from Journey Into the Deaf-World)

Although signed language has been suppressed in education for over a century in many lands, it could not be banished from the lives of Deaf people; most of them continued to take Deaf Spouses and to use their manual language at home, with their children, and at social gatherings. As prominent as signed languages have remained in the lives of Deaf people after Milan, the national spoken languages have also exerted a certain influence on the DEAF-WORLD. After all, ASL speakers, for example, have been engulfed by the English-speaking majority in school, at home, and in the workplace, for many decades. This was and still is bound to have considerable consequences for language use in the DEAF -WORLD. For one thing, some adult members of the DEAF-WORLD acquired English aurally before they became Deaf: six percent of Deaf children in a recent survey became Deaf after age three. Many in the other ninety-tour percent studied English intensively at home in their early years. and most have studied English at school. For those who learned ASL relatively late in life. their signing reflects their prior fluency in English as well as their late acquisition of ASL. In short, there is considerable variation in the signed language that one encounters in the American DEAF-WORLD. Linguists have shown that this variation is systematic, and it is related to the circumstances in which the speaker acquired ASL: Deaf people with Deaf parents and early learners of ASL tend to use a grammar different from that used by hearing people, Deaf people with hearing parents, and other late learners whose grammar is more closely related to English grammar.

In addition to family and educational background, geographic region contributes to variation in ASL grammar and vocabulary." When a sample of native signers scattered over the U.S. was asked to give ASL signs for a long list of English words, they produced three or more different signs for four-fifths of the words. Peanut for example, elicited nine regional variations. There is also a Black variety of ASL; used by Black Deaf adults in the South, it arose in part in the schools for Black Deaf children that existed before desegregation.

When members of the DEAF-WORLD address hearing English speakers who have limited knowledge of ASL, such as parents or students, they frequently change to a different signed language variety, as they may do on occasion with other Deaf speakers when it facilitates communication. They may utter some English words while using ASL; they may alter the word order of their signed sentences so that they are more like English sentences. This contact sign, which has arisen from contact between ASL and English, is an important source of language variation in the DEAF-WORLD. Linguists studying it in the 1970s labeled it Pidgin Sign English (PSE).

Contact signing differs from the ASL used by monolingual native speakers - let's call it heritage ASL31 - on the one hand, and from English on the other. For example, English has the articles a/an and the. To distinguish a and the. ASL uses pointing, eye-gaze and location. Contact sign fingerspells a and the. (Fingerspelling represents English words by assigning to each of the letters in the alphabet a distinct handshape. The set of 26 handshapes is called the manual alphabet.) Like many spoken languages. ASL does not have a separate word for be; contact sign uses the ASL sign glossed as TRUE to mean be. For example, to express the progressive, is running, was going, etc.. ASL modifies the movement of the verb according to rule. English also modifies verbs according to rule, using the suffix -ing, for example. Contact sign, on the other hand, frequently uses the word TRUE in addition to the ASL sign for the verb. This is an example of the reduced grammar characteristic of pidgins.

Linguists have recently disputed whether contact sign is best considered a pidgin, on the model of contact between spoken languages.33 Briefly said, contact sign is unlike English-based pidgins in that it has far too many characteristics of ASL. such as the use of space. eye gaze. and inflected verbs. Thus it is not 'reduced English," as spoken English pidgins are. Also, the social situation in which contact sign is used does not conform to the pattern that gives rise to pidgins. For example, when slaves were brought together to Jamaica from various West African nations, they learned enough of the language of the British rulers to be able to communicate among themselves across language barriers and with the rulers themselves; however, they were rarely allowed to socialize with the British and master their language. Thus a pidgin English arose. In contrast, the contact language in the American DEAF-WORLD arises because of the varying degrees of bilingualism of its speakers, some of whom are fully bilingual. Another respect in which contact signing is quite unlike pidgins is in its occasional use of elements from both languages simultaneously. When a signer produces an ASL sign and simultaneously speaks, whispers or mouths its English gloss, he is doing something that no user of a spoken language can do. Different members of the DEAF-WORLD will use the resources of contact signing differently depending on their bilingualism, their conversational partners, and the topic of conversation.

The influence of English on ASL takes several other forms. These are available to ASL speakers depending on the nature of the contact situation, and in particular on the language skills of the conversational partners. The speaker may use fingerspelling, following written English. In addition, some fingerspelled words have been transformed into signs over time. An example is ion, which began as a fingerspelled word J-O-B, with three separate elements. Although ASL WORK has both a noun and a verb form (as in English), ASL speakers apparently felt the need, perhaps because of their knowledge of English, to have a separate form that was a noun. The sign JOB elides the original 0, allowing a smooth transition between J and B and giving it a closer resemblance to other signs. Another influence of English can be seen when speakers utter signs and at the same time mouth their English glosses. In a classroom with Deaf children, some teachers may, moreover, use one of the invented systems of manually coded English. uttering one or more signs for each English word in an English sentence. Or They may actually speak the English words out-loud. The consequences of contact between English and ASL can also be seen when members of the DEAF–WORLD have a TTY conversation: the stream of English words across the screen sometimes conforms so closely to ASL that one can recover the intended message best by imagining the ASL sentence that would have given rise to it.

A related source of language variation in the DEAF-WORLD is called register. Register refers to variation in language according to the formality or informality called for by the social situation. Linguists distinguish several levels of register, with decreasing use of ellipsis and colloquial language: intimate, casual, consultative, formal, and frozen (formulaic). Early linguistic studies of register in ASL proposed a continuum between two registers: at one extreme, the formal register, or "high variety," of ASL reflected heavy English influence; at the other, the colloquial register, or 'low" variety, approached the ASL of Deaf people with Deaf parents. This proposal probably oversimplifies the linguistic situation37 but it captures the social situation that long existed in the American DEAF-WORLD, in which English was highly valued and ASL held in low esteem. Although that situation has changed in the wake of linguistic research on ASL and the movement for Deaf rights, some Deaf people still refer to others who use ASL as "low verbal," and to their language as broken language." or "slang." A Deaf friend of ours referred to her signing in ASL as "low sign"; for her. "high sign" took on more properties of English. Other informants have referred to ASL as "broken English" or 'bad English." Nowadays, linguists are investigating ASL registers, and interpreters and ASL speakers are taking classes to master them.

When oral Deaf adults or hard-of-hearing people mingle in the DEAF-WORLD. they may use spoken English (or Spanish, etc.) with selected conversational partners. Written English (and Spanish) are also in use. Recent immigrants will bring their own signed languages to the DEAF-WORLD and, until they have sufficiently mastered ASL, will communicate in a kind of reduced pantomime with borrowings from their signed language and from ASL.

Finally, there are some members of the DEAF-WORLD who have not been able to acquire any language. We recently met a Deaf man, the son of hearing parents, who had been wrongfully institutionalized as a young boy in a state hospital for mentally retarded people. When he was released a few years ago, he had at his command a keen desire to communicate and some skill in pantomime; that repertoire is often called minimal language skills (MLS). Deaf people in formal and informal situations have been communicating with him in MLS, teaching him ASL. and endeavoring to acculturate him to the DEAF-WORLD.

To summarize: TheDEAF-WORLD in the U.S. embraces wide variation in language use. Speakers range from ASL monolinguals or ASL dominant bilinguals to English-dominant bilinguals. There are people with minimal language skills. National, family and educational background;age; and geographic region all contribute to the variation in ASL encountered. So do the situations in which communication takes place, depending on the conversational partners, the appropriate register, and the topic. Most of these forms of language diversity apply equally to spoken languages. They apply to English in the U.S., for example, which varies with region, ethnicity, social setting and so on. Two noteworthy exceptions: Two spoken languages cannot be intermingled in quite the same way as a spoken and a signed language. Also, it is extraordinarily rare, thank goodness, for accessible language to be withheld from a hearing child, so hearing children rarely are reduced to the near-absence of a language.


Language has fundamentally three roles in bonding a group of speakers to one another and to their culture. It is a symbol of social identity, a medium of social interaction, and a store of cultural knowledge. ASL fulfills all these roles in the culture of the DEAF-WORLD.

A symbol of identity

ASL is a very powerful symbol of identity in the DEAF-WORLD, no doubt in part because of the struggle of ASL-speakers to find their identity in a hearing world that has traditionally disparaged their language and denied their culture. Deaf sociolinguist Barbara Kannapell, a pioneer in the American Deaf Rights movement, has written of ASL: "It is our Language in every sense of the word. We create it, we keep it alive, and it keeps us and our traditions alive." And further, "To reject ASL is to reject the Deaf person."

We recognize such evident pride in one's language. In France, to take just one example, the French Academy (and legislature) have labored for centuries to protect the purity of French from the inroads of other languages. Speakers of several minority languages in France - Breton, Alsatian and Arabic among them - struggle for acceptance of their language and distinct identity. Closer to home, Native Americans have been struggling for the protection of their languages, and identities; in 1990 Congress enacted a law encouraging the use of Native American languages in the instruction of Native American children. When Laurent Clerc was an old man and looked back with satisfaction at his long career, at all the Deaf and hearing teachers he had taught his LSF and all the pupils he had educated, he was pained to realize how much those teachers and pupils had reshaped his language, "corrupted it," as he felt. Just as the French believe their language is central to their culture and heritage and must be protected from alien influences, so Clerc and countless Deaf leaders after him have been concerned with protecting the purity of the signed language, acting on the conviction that manual language was central to their Deaf culture and heritage. In 1913, the National Association of the Deaf, fearing for the very survival of ASL under the scorched-earth policy of oralism, commissioned films of great Deaf American orators; these are a magnificent repository of formal ASL signing and of cultural transmission in the early twentieth century. Recently, the Deaf film maker Charles Krauel. who began making films of the DEAF-WORLD in 1925, reminisced about the old days and commented on ASL: "Back then signs were better, you know, natural, but now with all these is kind of signs and all that . . . My [old] signs are more abbreviated [and] much clearer."

A medium of social interaction

ASL is also a medium of social interaction in the DEAF-WORLD. This is surely one reason for its power as a symbol of identity. Most Deaf children lack any effective medium of social interaction until they encounter ASL. That encounter not only provides a basis for identifying with the members of a culture, transforming an outcast individual into a participating member of a society, it also enables full and easy communication for the first time. No wonder the discovery of Deaf culture is a central theme in personal history and in DEAF-WORLD legend. Here is an example from personal history. In his autobiography, Deaf American pioneer Edmund Booth - teacher, farmer, Gold Rush miner, journalist - recounted his childhood arrival at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford in the early nineteenth century, accompanied by his older brother Charles, who was hearing. The principal, Thomas Gallaudet. was unable to communicate with Edmund, since the boy knew only home signs. Then, Booth recounts, "Charles and I went into the boys' and next the girls' sitting rooms. It was all new to me and to Charles it was amusing, the innumerable motions of arms and hands. After dinner, he left and I was among strangers but knew I was at home. "

Why do Deaf people feel at home when communicating in ASL? Barbara Kannapell asks. And she answers: Deaf people can understand each other all the time in ASL but they only get fragmentary information or one way communication outside the DEAF-WORLD. ASL comes easily and naturally to most Deaf people. It allows Deaf people to share meanings, that is, common experiences. cultural beliefs, and values. These common experiences arise, in part, directly from being Deaf, where one depends on vision, not hearing, and uses ASL for easy communication.

Common experiences also arise from being Deaf in a hearing society. For example, there is growing up in a hearing family (or, less often, a Deaf one), attending a school for the Deaf, getting a job with the help of Deaf friends. Deaf people share common experiences as well from being Deaf in Deaf society: refurbishing the Deaf club; winning for the club team: finding one's spouse, and countless more. Much of Deaf people's knowledge of life and the world has been communicated to them by other Deaf people speaking their signed language. Because signed language is the medium of social interaction for most people in the DEAF-WORLD, it is also their medium of education and self-instruction: nearly all their knowledge of the world has come to them through signed language.

A repository of cultural knowledge: Values

Finally, the constituents of Deaf culture - its values, mores, history, and artistic expression - are stored in signed language, so to speak, for transmission across the generations. When a Deaf child becomes acculturated to Deaf culture in America, for example, what cultural knowledge does he or she acquire? In the first place, there are values. Deaf identity itself is highly valued; Deaf people seem to agree that a hearing person can never fully acquire that identity. Even with Deaf parents and a native command of ASL, the hearing person will have missed the experience of growing up Deaf, including attending a Deaf school, and that person is likely to have divided allegiances. Speaking and thinking like a hearing person are obviously fine, if one is hearing. And speech skills may be helpful in dealing with hearing people in some circumstances. Within Deaf culture, however, between one Deaf person and another, speaking and thinking like a hearing person are disparaged, as are mouth movements when signing (unless they are called for by the ASL signs).

Deaf people who adopt hearing values, perhaps even looking down on other Deaf people, are regarded as traitors. "We are all in the same family.' said one Deaf leader, and, indeed, the metaphor of family is fundamental and recurrent in the DEAF-WORLD. (Remember Edmund Booth finding himself "at home" among strangers.) The DEAF-WORLD is, by hearing standards, a heterogeneous family, but the salience of Deaf identity attenuates differences of age, class, sex, and ethnicity that would be more prominent in hearing society. Likewise, there is a penchant for group decision-making, and mutual aid and reciprocity figure importantly in Deaf culture. Consistent with the metaphor of family, there is deference to older Deaf people and their achievements in relation to the DEAF-WORLD. Informality is valued (except on formal occasions). One expert on American Deaf culture, Marie Philip, points out that it normally wont do to appear at the Deaf club in a suit, or to bring shrimp and champagne to a Deaf picnic. Everyone brings food to such Deaf social events in the U.S., but macaroni and cheese are closer to the norm. Physical contact is valued; Deaf people like to get together and see one another and, in the U.S. at least, give one another hugs of hello and goodbye. All in all, promoting unity is a fundamental value in the DEAF-WORLD. Informality, hugging, team sports and other joint activities all serve to promote this unity."

Residential school ties are also exceedingly important, and graduates are likely to return frequently for alumni events. Hearing people might mistake this for the fondness for one's alma mater sometimes found in hearing society, but in fact it goes much deeper. The school is home, since home is where your family is from. When asked where they are from, Deaf people will often reply with the name of the residential school they attended; it invariably comes up in introductions (as it did when Ben introduced himself in chapter 1). An interview with a Deaf couple in their eighties eloquently testified to the lifelong importance of school ties. Said the wife: "You see those people sitting over there? Those are my classmates from the Berkeley School. [I went there] when I was nine. They all befriended me, and we have been tight ever since. Of course, once we all started families, we didn't always see each other as regularly as we do now that everyone is retired. It's hard on my husband; he's from out of state and didn't grow up with us, so he feels kind of left out."

There is fierce group loyalty in the DEAF-WORLD, no doubt reinforced by the shared experience of being Deaf in a world dominated by hearing people. This loyalty may extend to protectively withholding from hearing people information about th eDEAF-WORLD 'S language and culture. The members of the DEAF-WORLD believe, as do members of other cultural groups, that one should marry within one's minority: marriage with a hearing person is frowned upon. Deaf marry Deaf approximately nine times out often. The DEAF-WORLD collectively values Deaf children highly; Deaf adults in rural areas, for example, will drive great distances to see Deaf children when invited, especially if the children might otherwise lack such contact. To culturally Deaf people, each Deaf child is a precious gift and, as noted in chapter 2, many expectant Deaf parents hope their child will be Deaf like them. This reminds us that we are on a journey into another culture, the culture of the DEAF-WORLD, which places a positive value on being Deaf. The shared identity and sense of family in the DEAF-WORLD crosses national borders: many culturally Deaf people feel they have closer ties to other Deaf people halfway around the world than they do to hearing people in their own country.

Visual perception, and the visual language of the DEAF-WORLD, are valued. As the Deaf Rights movement has spread around the world, one of the first activities of newly empowered Deaf societies has been to publish a dictionary of their signed language. Understandably, attempts to repair. supplement or restructure the signed language are viewed with hostility. Deaf linguist Carol Padden affirms that, in American Deaf culture. "hand gestures must convey some kind of visual meaning"; Deaf people resist nonsense use of hands, for example in cued speech, where hand movements near the mouth aim to disambiguate speech sounds. ASL literature, including history, stories, tall tales, legends, fables, anecdotes, poetry, plays, jokes, naming rituals, sign play, and much more, are highly valued, and the literature of ASL commonly reaffirms the values of the DEAF-WORLD.

Deaf culture is engulfed by the culture of the surrounding hearing society and frequently takes on many majority values. In the U.S., Deaf values concerning religion, work, money, and family, among others, may derive in significant measure from the hearing society.

A repository of cultural knowledge: Customs

Culture is a part of a society's adaptation to its physical and social environment. Some customs are rather transparent adaptations, while others seem, on the face of it, more arbitrary. Most customs are some of both. Clothing, for example, is clearly adaptive: cultures in the tropics prescribe light clothing, those in the polar regions, furs. However, dismissing the Indian's sari as mere adaptation would be a mistake; after all, within each climactic zone, clothing takes on different shapes and colors depending on the culture. So it is with customs in the DEAF-WORLD. Some may seem transparently related to the environment, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them for that reason. Here's an example. Partings in American Deaf culture can take a very long time and proceed in stages. First there are the good-byes in the living room at the end of a successful party. The actual departure may take place more than an hour later. Upcoming events and, especially. plans to see each other again, are discussed. Last remarks continue as departing guests retrieve their things, progress out the door, down the steps. and along the street to their car (of course, the signs are getting larger as they get more distant from their hosts). Even after the guests are in their car, they may wind down the window and sign a few last words.

Indeed, they may continue to sign as they drive off. Likewise, Deaf people almost invariably linger in restaurants and at Deaf public events; they will be seen in the lobby, for example, long after the performance has ended. Some writers see in this custom the natural adaptation of a community that was long unable to use the telephone to stay in touch and had to rely on personal contact. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the custom originally arose. Before we accept this hypothesis, however, we would want to see evidence from other Deaf cultures. If it is so, then why isn't the custom dwindling in the U.S., now that Deaf people have TTYs and access to telephone relay services? And how will that hypothesis account for the fact that American Deaf culture disparages abrupt departures and even temporary unexplained departures (for example, slipping away to go to the bathroom)?

Like partings, introductions in American Deaf culture have particular characteristics. Here is the canonical form, from which particular introductions may deviate in practice. When person C introduces people A and B, C typically positions himself at the vertex of a triangle and says to both, "I'll introduce you." C then turns toward A and fingerspells B's first and last names, followed by B's name sign. (More about name signs below.) C tells what school for the Deaf B attended and may add some salient information relevant to the DEAF-WORLD, such as B's Deaf relatives or someone A might know who also attended B's school or lived in the general area of the school. Then C turns toward A and makes the complementary introduction. B is then free to address A directly. They will not use each other's name signs, however; name signs are used for people who are absent.

Another noteworthy custom in American Deaf culture, one that frequently startles hearing people who have begun mingling in the DEAF-WORLD, is the requirement for frank talk. In hearing society, especially in more formal situations, it is considered rude to come directly to the point and state it explicitly. The hearing student dissatisfied with a grade, for example, is more likely to say to the teacher, "Excuse me, I would like to talk with you about my grade," than "You gave me a C. Why?" Hinting and vague talk in an effort to be polite are inappropriate and even offensive in the DEAF-WORLD. The custom of clear communication is often to be seen in ASL literature. Stories are rich in detail, start at the beginning and end at the end, and they speak directly and candidly on their topic. A principle of etiquette in the DEAF-WORLD seems to be "always act in a way that facilitates communication." Hence, blunt speech is not rude, but sudden departures, private conversations, and breaking visual contact are.

As might be expected, members of this culture have quite distinct rules for attention getting, turn-taking, polite discourse, name-giving, and other behaviors related to language.

Consider name-giving. Names and naming are significant in many cultures and are subject to many rules; think of all the ways custom constrains the choice of a name in the United States. The giving and receiving of a name sign is also an important event in acculturation in the DEAF-WORLD. and the name sign itself frequently reveals much about Deaf culture. In The Book of Name Signs, Deaf scholar Sam Supalla explains that there are basically two classes of name signs: those that are purely descriptive (less common), and those that incorporate a handshape from the manual alphabet. Laurent Clerc had a descriptive name sign: two fingers brushing across his cheek, where a scar remained from an accident in infancy. Embodying American Deaf culture's predilection for plain talk, descriptive name signs frequently speak quite bluntly about a person s appearance or behavior. No offense is intended or taken. For example. a somewhat corpulent (sign FAT) Deaf leader has as his name sign a claw handshape placed over an inflated right cheek.

In his own name sign story, Dr. Supalla relates his mother's consternation when she learned that she had a new baby boy, not a girl as expected. and that his father had chosen the name Samuel, inscribing it on the birth certificate. With that name, Sam's name sign would have to contain the handshape from the manual alphabet that corresponded to S, and it would have to be located on the chin because all the members of the family had their name signs there, signifying family unity. (In many cultures where names show family relations, family members' names share common features.) The problem was that the handshape and place were already taken by brother Steve's on the chin. If Sam was to have a name sign beginning with S, it would have to be placed outside the family location. leaving him ostracized from birth! Brother Ted soon came home for the holidays from the Washington School for the Deaf and learned about the family's quandary. It was he who gave Sam his name sign: an S that moves from one side of the chin to the other.

Sam Supalla's name sign contains information about Sam and his family, his language and his culture, but it is all encoded. In other words, his name sign is not iconic. The most extreme example of how arbitrary the form of a name sign can be, and how packed with cultural meaning, comes from the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York, where Deaf pupils' name signs used to be their locker numbers. One misguided writer assailed this practice as revealing the depersonalization of Deaf children in the residential schools. Alumni of the school, however, see it differently. and still use their locker-number name signs. A similar practice occurred at some residential schools for the Deaf in France, where children's name signs were their registration numbers. Far from pejorative, such name signs identified them as having attended a residential school, and thus as particularly authentic members of the DEAF-WORLD.

There are many examples in ASL literature of playing with name signs for artful or humorous effect. For example, the ASL sign meaning to lie is executed with the B handshape (bent thumb, four fingers touching) brushing horizontally across the chin. The name sign for former president Richard Nixon replaced this B handshape with an N handshape, to represent the first letter of his last name.

The giving of a name sign is a rite of passage. Deaf children from hearing homes frequently arrive at the school for the Deaf without a name sign. As their mastery of ASL and their acculturation proceeds, they receive their name sign. Frequently the honor of conferring a name falls to an authority figure in the DEAF-WORLD, or an older classmate with Deaf parents. Hearing people who learn ASL and mingle in the DEAF-WORLD will be given a name sign as well. Students at schools for the Deaf may secretly assign their teachers derogatory name signs.

A repository of cultural knowledge: Information

Cultural knowledge consists not only of values and customs but also of cultural information. We expect people acculturated in the United States to know who Paul Revere was, where you can buy toothpaste, and how to find a phone number. Different cultures expect their members to possess different information, although the types of information are to some extent cross-cultural. Cultural knowledge specific to the DEAF-WORLD includes such matters as the hours at the Deaf club; the names of important Deaf leaders, including the presidents of the various associations of Deaf people in the state; how to use the telephone relay service; major figures in American Deaf history; and how to manage in various trying situations with hearing people (for example, when your car is stopped by a police officer, do not explain yourself with rapid hand movements).

Sharing information is highly valued in the DEAF-WORLD. Exactly where the universal penchant for gossip ends, and the DEAF-WORLD custom of keeping one another well-informed takes over, may be hard to say, but observers agree that an important social role in the DEAF-WORLD is to pass information along. Secrecy is considered rude and signed conversations are normally quite visible, so necessarily private conversations must be held in private places. When we get together with our Deaf friends, the conversations frequently begin with bringing each other up-to-date on DEAF-WORLD information. A has been hired by the New England Home for the Aged Deaf. B has taken a post at the Austine School. The team from the Boston Deaf Club won the women's softball tournament. They are threatening to close down the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. And so on. Sharing not only respects the rule of etiquette to facilitate communication, it also promotes unity.

ASL plays so many vital roles in the DEAF-WORLD, as a symbol of identity, medium of interaction, source of values, customs and information, that it is impossible to imagine Deaf culture without it, and it is painful to imagine a Deaf child without it. It is understandable, then, why Deaf people, like the members of other language minorities, are so ferociously attached to their language and have struggled valiantly to preserve it throughout their history. Although the roles that ASL plays in the DEAF-WORLD are much the same as the roles fulfilled by other minority languages in their communities, the form that ASL (and other signed languages) takes is different, since it is a visual and spatial language. That difference in form has wide reaching consequences for how Deaf people express themselves in conversations and in art forms, and how they perceive, think and remember. These consequences are the subject of the next chapter.