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Language in the Visual Modality Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) has 100,000 to 500,000 primary users out of nearly 2,000,000 profoundly deaf persons in USA. Historically related to French sign language but not to British sign language.

The History of ASL


Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought French Sign Language to the US in 1817.
He was hired to establish a school for the deaf. He used used a language and methods based on a Paris school founded by lAbb de lpe in 1775.

Manual Spelling in Sign Language


Used for borrowings and proper nouns. Do NOT equate this with sign language itself!

ASL resulted from a blend of this language and indigenous signed languages.

Marthas Vineyard Sign Language


(ethnologue.com) From 1692 to 1910 nearly all hearers on Martha's Vineyard were bilingual in English and sign language (MVSL).
The first deaf person arrived in 1692. From 1692 to 1950 there was a high rate of hereditary deafness. In the 19th century, 1 in 5700 Americans were deaf, 1 in 155 in Martha's Vineyard. MVSL is now extinct.

MVSL
MVSL was based on a regional sign language in Weald, England, where the deaf persons' ancestors had lived. French Sign Language was introduced to Martha's Vineyard in 1817. MVSL was later combined with American Sign Language, but never became identical to ASL.

Shared Structures
ASL has the same fundamental structures as spoken languages.
clauses phrases morphemes phones

Shared Properties
ASL has analogs of many spoken language properties.
loud speech vs. whispering different registers dialectal variation language change

Sign Language Phones


Spoken Languages
Produced through articulatory movements of the tongue and vocal tract. Perceived auditorily.

Sign Language Phones


Particular hand shapes
closed fist with one index finger extended palm facing signers body touching the forehead

Hand orientations Places of articulation relative to the body

Signed Languages
Produced through articulatory movements of the hands, arms, face, and upper body. Perceived visually.

Sign Language Phones


Movement characteristics
unidirectional single contact head shake

Non-manual expressions

Sign language phones are typically articulated simultaneously, not sequentially, in expressing a morpheme.

nude (top) vs. rude (bottom) Difference: orientation of stationary (left) hand

Sign Language Phonology


A phone used in the expression of a morpheme may be changed by rules, depending on the context a phone appears in.
father (left) vs. fine (right) Difference: place of articulation (head vs. chest)

Just as with spoken language. Can get predictable variation in elements like hand shape.

Predictable Variation in Hand Shape

Syllabic structure in ASL


Movements correspond to vowels Holds correspond to consonants

Morphology: Compounds
TOMATO = RED + SLICE RED: pointing finger handshape SLICE: flat hand handshape TOMATO: combines pointing finger handshape with SLICE manner of motion. The handshape assimilates.
Just like assimilation in spoken languages.

ASL Browser
http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/aslweb/br owser.htm

ASL Syntax
Similar to the syntax of spoken languages.
organized into phrases with heads.

Non-manual signs can spread


They can spread over phrases.

Grammatical elements can be expressed on the face and upper body, through nonmanual expressions
These occur in parallel with manual signing.

Negative Head Shake


AuxP NP N JOHN BUY NOT HOUSE Aux VP V NP N

Negative Sentences
Non-manual sign head shake Can spread rightwards across VP Sometimes the manual sign is even omitted JOHN NOT [ BUY HOUSE ]VP John is not buying a house.

ASL Wh-Questions
Wh-questions can be formed in two ways:
With transformational movement (like English) With a non-manual sign

With and Without Movement


Who loves John?
Base sequence of signs: WHO LOVE JOHN

With movement:
<who>

LOVE JOHN WHO

Without movement:
WHO LOVE JOHN Furrowed brows during the entire sentence.

QP

ASL Movement Questions


QP AuxP AuxP VP Q

NP

Q will NP Aux
Bill

NP WHO NP JOHN

which election

Aux V

VP

V win

LOVE

ASL Non-Movement Questions


QP AuxP Q

The Genuine Article


Is ASL a real human language? YES! Why? Because it has the right properties.

NP Aux WHO V

VP NP JOHN

LOVE furrowed brow

General Properties
ASL has the key general properties of human languages.
Arbitrariness Displacement Discreteness Productivity

Same Levels of Structure


ASL has the same levels of linguistic structure as spoken languages.
Semantics Syntax Morphology even phonology!

ASL can express the same range of ideas as spoken languages.

Many of the same kinds of rules as spoken languages.

Signed Languages
ASL is not unique as a signed language.
Other signed languages from other cultures also have all relevant properties. French Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language

Is ASL A Good Thing?


Historically controversial. Those opposed to ASL argue:
Deaf people live in a spoken language world. Need to communicate with speaking people.

There is not one, single sign language.


There are different signed languages. They differ from each other just as spoken languages do.

Education of deaf children:


Should be taught to speak and lip-read. Sign languages like ASL interfere.

Lip Reading
Why is it difficult to do? The entire vocal tract is used in articulating speech sounds. Many distinctions are not externally visible at all.
How can a lip reader distinguish voicing, e.g, [p] vs. [b]?

Lip Reading Is Limited


Lip-reading is guesswork; under ideal conditions, only about 30 to 40 percent (of the speech) is retained.
-- Larry Thronson, a sign-language instructor and counselor at the Central Coast Center for Independent Living in Santa Cruz, California.

Speech is Limited
It is difficult to learn to speak well when you cant hear the sounds you are producing.
And you cant see what speakers are doing.

Social Isolation
It is extremely difficult to connect socially and personally with someone if you cannot speak with them. Deaf children who are prevented from learning sign language never fully master a native language of any kind.

Social Isolation
Blindness cuts you off from things; deafness cuts you off from people.
-- Helen Keller

Advantages of ASL
ASL can be fully mastered by deaf people.
A language to call your own.

Allows deaf people to be part of a social group with shared language and social patterns. These are advantages of true signed languages in general, not just ASL.

What About Written English?


Deaf people in the US still need knowledge of English to participate in wider social contexts. What about written English?

Learning Written English


English uses an alphabetic system. How can children not exposed to the sound system of English possibly learn to read and write it?

Learning Written English


Hearing children already know English through speaking.
The phonology, morphology, and syntax that the written language is based on.

A Second Language
Deaf children are learning written English as a second language. A double whammy (hard in two ways):
A different language. The written form of a different language (remember, written language is derived from spoken language, harder for children to learn, etc.)

Deaf children do not know English.


They have learned ASL phonology, morphology, and syntax, different from English.

Written ASL?
An attempt has been made to develop graphemes to represent ASL signs. The graphemes must represent the key elements of a sign:
handshape, location, movement, action

Grapheme for cat

Handshape brushes cheek in repeated and circular motion

Teaching Written English


Clerc school in Tucson, AZ. Experimental program:
Learn to recognize ASL graphemes. Match English words with the ASL graphemes.

Glossing
Children read sentences constructed from English roots, but using ASL word order and grammatical markers
YESTERDAY FATHER BOX GIVE-3 BOY

Eng: Father gave the boy a box yesterday

Summary
ASL, and other signed languages, are linguistic systems which have the same fundamental properties as spoken languages. Nevertheless, gaining full acceptance for these languages is difficult. Deaf children face significant difficulties in learning spoken languages.