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Hearing and Deaf Signers on Providence Island

William Washabaugh

Sign Language Studies, Volume 24, Fall 1979, pp. 191-214 (Article)

Published by Gallaudet University Press

DOI: 10.1353/sls.1979.0003

For additional information about this article

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SLS 24 (1979), 191-214

@ by Linstok Press, Inc.


William Washabaugh


Providence Island, Colombia, harbors

a small number of deaf persons who
have developed a manual sign language. The island (see
Figure 1) is small in size (15 square miles) and in population (2500-3000). The people of Providence are isolated
from the British West Indies with which they are culturally
affiliated. They are governed by Colombia, but their political and economic links to the distant mainland are weak.
In short, Providence is not only a geographical island; it is
a cultural, economic, and political island as well.
The deaf people of Providence Island are scattered in
villages around the perimeter of this mountainous island in
such a way that a few of them live in each of the seven
villages. Three deaf persons live in Town, one in Bailey,
three in Rocky Point, two in Smoothwater Bay, five in Southwest Bay, two in Lazy Hill. Three deaf persons regularly
live in Old Town, though they are temporarily absent while
recuperating from illnesses. One deaf person who resided
in Bailey for some twenty-three years now resides in the
neighboring island of San Andres.
Most of the deaf people are integrated into the daily
round of life on Providence Island; though one middle aged
male in Town has been confined and isolated by his parents
since his youth. The integration of the deaf into the social
life of Providence is facilitated by the character of the
island's economy. Traditionally the mainstay of the economy
has been a combination of fishing, slash-and-burn horti.

Sign Language Studies 24

culture, cattle-raising, and fruit gathering. The products of

these labors, when augmented by the cash returned by the
men who have shipped out to work in the merchant marine,
provide for the material necessities of life on Providence.
Formal education has long existed on Providence, but except
for training a few to take up work outside the island, that
formal education has not trained persons to handle the workaday tasks that they face on their home ground.
This subsistence economy is one to which a deaf person
can make as significant contribution as a hearing person. Not
a few deaf persons are well reputed in their villages for their
cooking, washing, sewing, fishing, farming, and cattle
The participation of the deaf in the routine subsistence
activities of the island has led to a rather more positive
valuation of the deaf and their language than is realized in
the United States. Woodward (1978a: 66) has shown that a
majority of the hearing on Providence judge the sign language
of the deaf (which will be referred to here as PSL) to be an
autochthonous and systematic language, which is distinct
from the oral language of the island (Woodward 1978b). These
favorable attitudes and judgments contrast sharply with the
negative attitudes that the majority of hearing Americans hold
in regard to the American deaf and their language.
Both the subsistence character of the economy and the
favorable attitudes of the hearing toward the deaf promote the
acquisition of the deaf sign language by the hearing on Providence Island. This natural, untutored acquisiton of a sign
language by hearing persons is a rare process, and one that
has not been described for any other community. The description that follows is intended to fill this gap in the literature.
The deaf on Providence
Island, as in the United
States, are for the most
part born into hearing families. There is no deaf person on
Providence whose parents are deaf. In consequence, the deaf
must accommodate their behavior to the needs of the hearing.
And conversely, in every deaf person's family there are
hearing persons who must attune much of their daily behavior
to the needs of the deaf.
A second significant sociolinguistic fact is that the
A sociolinguistic
of the signing community.



Old Town


Lazy Hill


Freshwater Bay

Southwest Bay

Rocky Point


Sothes:BySmoothwater Bay

Providence Island



Sign Language Studies 24

deaf people are scattered in different villages around the

island. Being so scattered, the deaf of one village interact
with the hearing of their own village much more frequently
than they interact with the deaf of other villages. The deaf
of different villages do not join into groups, form clubs, or
otherwise ally themselves with one another so as to deal
corporately with the world or with the hearing-in this
respect the deaf of Providence Island differ from the deaf
in the United States (Schein 1968). In summary, two factors
work to promote interaction between the deaf and the
hearing on Providence Island. First, the deaf are born to
hearing parents; and second, the deaf are scattered in
different villages.
The isolation of (a few) deaf persons in a world of
hearing persons leads the deaf and the hearing to accommodate to each other's needs. But the isolation of the deaf is
not so complete as to prevent them from constructing and
transmitting a vernacular signed language. Intrahousehold
and interhousehold interactions between deaf persons facilitate the genesis and transmission of PSL. These sorts of
interactions are described below.
The deaf are born to hearing parents and that locates
the deaf in the world of the hearing. But deafness runs in
families and by that fact the deaf are located in a deaf world
as well. To be exact, fifteen of the nineteen deaf persons
enumerated above live with deaf siblings. Most dramatically,
in Southwest Bay three of the five deaf persons living in that
village are the children of the same parents. The other two
deaf persons in the village are children of a hearing sister
of those three deaf persons. This collocation of deaf persons
in households establishes the social groups in which the
sign language of Providence Island is generated. These deaf
households are linguistically critical masses, for from them
the vernacular language of the deaf arises through the activity
of unconscious semiotic processes of code construction
(Washabaugh in press).
Inter-village interaction between the deaf goes on right
alongside the interaction of the deaf within households. Such
inter-village interactions were not always so frequent on
Providence. They have been facilitated in recent years by the
construction of a road around the island in 1961. Now interVillage interaction-severely hampered in former times by
mountains jutting out into the sea and by impassable mires


in the rainy season-is a matter of hopping a pick-up truck.

The deaf and the hearing members of deaf households move
about as frequently as anyone else, and inevitably they make
contact with the deaf of other villages. This inter-village
contact between members of deaf households, though irregular, facilitates the homogenization of PSL (however see
Woodward, DeSantis, & Washabaugh in press).
The foregoing description can be distilled and packaged into a sociolinguistic model of the PSL community.
Such a model will have the general form of concentric
circles (Figure 2). The core of the signing community is
made up of the deaf siblings from whose interactions the
rudimentary sign language arises. Outside of but in close
contact with the deaf sibling core are the hearing members
of the deaf household. These are the hearing persons with
whom the deaf interact daily and who often seem to acquire
a great facility in the language of the deaf.
Hearing acquaintances
of deaf families
Hearing members of
deaf households

-Deaf siblings
Village 1

Village 3

Intra-village interaction
Village 2

b - Inter-village interaction


2 . A sociolinguistic model of the Providence Island

signing community.

Sign Language Studies 24

Two qualifications about the interaction between the

deaf and the hearing members of deaf households are worth
stating. First, where deaf households are extended and contain a great span of ages, and where the deaf are either
advanced in age or are very young, some hearing members
of the household are either too old or too young to interact
with the deaf members. Thus in Rocky Point one deaf man
lives with his parents and his sister and his sister's family.
The sister has acquired a great facility with the sign language, but her children seem to be less competent (quantitative evidence for this observation will be supplied below).
Second, deaf households are sometimes so restricted in
size that they contain no hearing members. Such is the case
where the deaf are advanced in age and where the hearing
members of the household have died or moved away. In Old
Town and in Lazy Hill deaf siblings live alone with each
other, but they have established close bonds with certain
hearing neighbors. Those hearing neighbors, for their part,
have acquired an advanced competence in the sign language
(again evidence will be supplied below).
Besides the hearing members of deaf households, there
are a larger number of hearing acquaintances of the deaf.
These hearing persons do not interact with the deaf as frequently as do the members of deaf households, but nevertheless they do work and play alongside the deaf daily or
weekly or monthly. Some of the acquaintances are peers and
intimate friends, who either live near the deaf or who deal
with the deaf daily. Others are casual acquaintances, who
know the deaf but do not interact with them so frequently.
Finally, in the outermost ring of the model are the persons
who have knowledge of the deaf but do not interact with them.
To recapitulate, every set of deaf siblings forms the
core for a set of concentric rings. The hearing who occupy
the closest ring around the core are those who interact most
frequently with the deaf. They seem to have acquired greatest
proficiency in PSL. The hearing in the outermost rings have
least knowledge of the sign language.
For every such set of deaf siblings on Providence Ishand
there exists a similar set of concentrically organized rings of
hearing persons. In the commonplace events of daily life the
different concentrically organized sets of persons interact
with and influence one another. It is not merely the deaf of
a village who interact with the deaf of another village, but


the deaf of one village interact with the hearing of different

levels or circles of another village, and the hearing of one
village also interact with the hearing and deaf of another
village (Figure 2b). Given this complexity of interaction,
it seems plausible to argue that while the deaf-with-deaf
interaction initiates PSL, deaf-with-hearing interaction
contributes significantly to its development .
Some anecdotes will illustrate and flesh out this
model of PSL development. First, I observed that the transmission of the sign language material outward from the
deaf core to the hearing rings of a village can be quite
rapid. A research assistant and I spent the better part of
a day working with a deaf woman unaccompanied by any
other deaf or hearing person. We struggled with her to elicit from her some metalinguistic observations on her language. While our efforts went unrewarded, the deaf woman
acquired during the session the ASL sign NAME-there being
no equivalent sign in PSL-and a knowledge of how to use
it appropriately. Ten days later we observed the deaf woman's
hearing brother interact with her deaf brother. The hearing
brother, without my provocation, employed the sign NAME;
the deaf brother responded appropriately. This anecdote suggests that some hearing members of deaf households participate
in the earliest stages of sign language construction and promote the transmission of signs to the hearing and to the deaf
The preceding anecdote illustrates the development of
signing as it moves from the core to the rings of the concentric
circles. But signing at the core is itself influenced by the
hearing persons at the outer rings. The observations below
will illustrate the manner in which the deaf incorporate into
their signing some material drawn from the world of the hearing.
It is a case that not a few signs employed by the deaf are
drawn directly from the communications of the hearing. Signs
like LIE and BAD are constituted of movements of the mouth
that imitate, with exaggeration, the movements speakers
make in pronouncing the words lie and bad. [Though Providence
is politically part of Colombia, its spoken language is an
English-based pidgin ] Second, the signs FAMILY, LENGTH,
and STINGY are but a few of the signs of PSL that also serve
as gesticulations ("emblems") in the hearing community. It
is possible that these gesticulations of the hearing were recoded by the deaf and incorporated into their signing.

Sign Language Studies 24

The significance of these anecdotes and in fact of the

whole sociolinguistic model shown in Figure 2b is that although sign language genesis may result from deaf-with-deaf
interaction, the development and final shape of the sign language cannot be understood without a consideration of deafwith-hearing interaction.
The target .

The foregoing description has shown that the

hearing play a significant role in the signing
community of Providence Island. The ultimate aim of the subsequent description will be to reveal the manner in which the
hearing acquire competence in PSL syntax so as to make clear
and specific the nature of the contribution of the hearing to
the development of PSL. But it will be necessary to preface
this study of the acquisition of sign by the hearing with a
brief review of the general nature of sign languages, of some
specific problems in describing sign language structure, and
of the specific character of PSL.
The acquisition of PSL, or of any vernacular sign language, by hearing persons is problematic, because all sign
language vernaculars seem to be organized according to
principles some of which are unlike those of spoken languages.
Sign language vernaculars generally make greater use of simultaneously collocated expressions than do spoken languages
(Stokoe 1976); they make greater use of iconic devices (Friedman 1977); greater use of repetition and less use of redundancy
of expression than do spoken languages (Bellugi & Fischer
1972). In regard to syntax, Fischer (1975) has shown that ASL
makes no use of morphological affixing but frequent use of
semantic context, verb directionality, object incorporation,
and word order to disambiguate sentences. I. M. Schlesinger
(1970) has argued that Israeli sign language makes no use of
word order to disambiguate sentences, and Friedman (1976)
has said the same for ASL, although her emphasis is on the
alternatives to word order and case marking principles that
are employed by the American deaf in their language. 2
This review of literature on the distinctiveness of
sign language organization is appropriate, because PSL like
ASL and other sign languages is organized according to linguistically extraordinary principles. The deaf signers of
Providence Island make no use of morphological affixing or
word order, but their utterances do follow a Topic + Comment
format; PSL utterances are replete with repetition and make
ample use of a panoply of non-manual and context-dependent
devices for utterance disambiguation (Washabaugh i.p., Washabaugh et al. 1978).


On word order.

The absence of a word-order principle

in PSL can be demonstrated with both
formally elicited and candidly produced signing. First, there
are formal, elicited utterances like (1) below, which were
gathered from deaf signers describing semantically contrasting
situations. From eight deaf signers I collected forty-eight
such utterances. In all these utterances, the verb signs take
reversible agents and patients (Fischer 1975: 16f), and in
almost all of these utterances the verbs are non-directional;
HIT and GIVE are the directional verb signs that did appear,
but the directionality in the expression of these verbs was
not used to disambiguate any of the utterance pairs. Thus in
the corpus of forty-eight, the deaf did not use semantic context or directionality of expression to distinguish utterances
in a pair. If a signer lacked any other device for disambiguating pairs and had employed a word-order principle, sign
order would be uniform. If, on the other hand, signers had
not made use of a word-order principle, then the order of
agent and patient signs would be random. Where word order
is random, any particular order (e.g. agent + patient) would
appear with a frequency of 0.50.
(1) a.


(VT 4-7: 25)
'The man hit the baby'
(VT 4-7: 27)
'The baby hit the man'

In the sample of forty-eight utterances produced by

eight deaf signers, twenty-one utterances contained both
agent and patient signs. The frequency of Agent + Patient
order was 0.57, or just a little more than would be predicted by chance. Thus the analysis of formally elicited vernacular signing confirms the absence of a word-order principle.
A careful inspection of candid deaf signing warrants
the same conclusion, that word order is not employed by the
deaf of Providence in the organization of their utterances.
Utterances (2) through (7) below will demonstrate the point
that agents and patients are not strictly placed in an utterance relative to the placement of the verb sign. Each of
these utterances is excerpted from videotape recordings of
fairly natural conversations among deaf persons. In the
earlier excerpts I am particularly interested in the organization of the noun signs (agent and patient) related to the

Sign Language Studies 24

verb sign JAIL, because this verb sign is one that lacks a
directional expression and it takes reversible agents and
patients (Fischer 1975: 16f). JAIL is the sort of verb the
agent and patient of which could be confused; hence utterances containing the verb JAIL are good testing grounds for
a word-order principle; however, in no instance is there
any evidence for such a word-order principle.
Excerpt (2) occurred in a conversation between CB
from Southwest Bay, her hearing brother, who helped with
translations, and LA of Rocky Point. Both CB and LA had
undergone surgical operations at one time or another, and
at this point in their conversation they began talking about
their experiences. CB volunteered the information that her
father would not allow her to undergo another operation.
(All translations are arrived at through advice from CB's
brother, through a knowledge of island affairs, as well as
through observation of signed utterances.)



The sign JAIL is used four times in this excerpt, each time
as a verb. Two of the four uses seem to require an intransitive reading (patient, no agent): ME JAIL and HIM JAIL both
mean 'CB will be jailed.' In the phrase JAIL PAPA, the first
person patient has been deleted; PAPA in this utterance must
be a specified agent. Thus, in the first three uses in this
excerpt, JAIL is preceded by a patient sign and/or followed
by an agent sign. But in the fourth use of JAIL, PAPA JAIL ME,
the verb JAIL is preceded by an agent sign, PAPA, and followed
by an index that indicates the patient.
This same problematic order, JAIL +Patient, appears
again later in the same conversation. In (3) LA summarizes
CB's plight, signing that if CB were to fly to San Andres for
an operation, her father would jail her. CB adds that she
cannot even send for pills. LA reiterates that CB cannot write
for pills or her father would jail her. Both lament over the




(VT 7-8: 170)
Here as in (2) the agent, PAPA, is not specified and the
patient (SHE) follows the verb JAIL. These two uses, and
the previous four uses of JAIL in (2), support the claim that
agents and patients can either precede or follow the verb
JAIL, or that the grammar of PSL tolerates either an S + 0
order or an 0 + S order.
Close inspection of these sentences may raise suspicion about this claim. All the cases in which the patient
follows JAIL seem to come after the specification of a set of
conditions. In (2) there is ME GO OPERATE NO PAPA JAIL ME
('If she goes and flies, papa will jail her'); also PILL GO
PILL WRITE GO NO JAIL SHE ('CB may not go for or write for
pills, else (papa) will jail her'). It may well be that the
problematic sign order JAIL + Patient signals a result of
specified conditions.
Some support for this "'result of conditions" hypothesis
is apparent in (4). Here BT of Rocky Point is conversing with
LA and CB and myself. BT tells CB that everyone in Providence
is lazy, will not work, drinks, smokes grass, and steals. He
adds that he neither drinks nor smokes for fear of being jailed.


ME (VT 8-8: 209)

Here again JAIL ME signifies 'they will jail me' and follows
as the result of a series of specified conditions. As in previous utterances, the conditions contain an N + V order (i.e.
ME NO), whereas the results are expressed in an inverted
V + N order.
Excerpt (5) however raises problems with this hypothesis and simultaneously suggests an alternative hypothesis
to explain the JAIL+ Patient sign order. In (5) LA describes
the pernicious assault by three young men from Rocky Point
on BT. A rough translation of (5) would be: 'Three men grabbed
him. One of them with a beard-the one whose big mother

Sign Language Studies 24

died when the ship went down-was grabbed and jailed.'


HEAR YOU, JAIL HIM (VT 8-8: 139)

The problem raised by (5) is that if JAIL HIM's order is

the result of some set of specified conditions, then why is
JAIL HIM preceded immediately by HIM GRAB JAIL? The
"result of conditions" hypothesis cannot explain this fact,
but perhaps an "afterthought" hypothesis is more appropriate.
In another paper (Washabaugh in press), I note that at
the end of utterances in PSL, noun signs are often added
parenthetically as clarifiers. Occasionally verbs are paired
with these "afterthought" noun signs, but when that occurs,
the phrase that results is placed in an inverted V +N order.
HEAR YOU in (5) is typical of such "afterthought" phrases.
This hypothesis might explain all the cases of JAIL + Patient,
since in all situations the V +N phrases appear at or near
the end of an utterance.
But this hypothesis is scotched by evidence from utterances (6) and (7). In (6), CB and her niece AB, both of
Southwest Bay, are conversing at the home of AB. CB recounts,
with great enthusiasm, a tale of horse-meat sausage. A rough
and ready translation of this tale goes like this: According
to a telegraph report, a young man, designated earlier by the
descriptive sign AFRO-HAIR, was thrown in jail for his role in
putting horsemeat into sausage where he worked.


(VT 8-8: 299)

The parts of the utterance that are significant for our concerns have to do with the signs EAT and SAUSAGE. Used twice
by CB in mid-utterance, the phrase is once ordered SAUSAGE
EAT and later EAT SAUSAGE. Neither the "result of conditions"
hypothesis nor the "afterthought' hypothesis will explain this
variation in sign order.


Again in (7) there is an inexplicable variation in sign

order. Here CB of Southwest Bay and LA and BT of Rocky
Point are talking about BT's favorite subject, work. LA indicates that BT's old father does not work, and that BT must
carry water down from the hills. CB summarizes the situation
for her brother.


-NO- 3
(VT 8-8: 288)

Where LA signs HIM CARRY WATER in mid-utterance, BT

signs ME WATER CARRY in utterance-final position. This
will be a sufficiently clear demonstration that Verb + Patient
order is not explained by the position of the phrase in the
utterance nor by its semantic relation to some previously
specified set of conditions.
Utterances (2) through (7) above provide evidence from
candidly signed PSL that agents and patients are not ordered
relative to verbs. Moreover, the preceding analysis of a
corpus of forty-eight rather formal utterances elicited from
eight deaf persons has shown that agents and patients are
not ordered relative to one another. In general then, semantic
categories are not distinguished by their position in PSL
utterances. Given that no specifically syntactic categories,
which could be ordered, exist in PSL, I conclude that PSL
does not make use of a word-order principle.
The Topic-C omment f ormat.

Word order is not a

principle employed by
deaf signers of PSL. But that conclusion should not be misinterpreted to mean that any constituents can occupy any
position in a PSL utterance. There seems to be a discourse
principle, a principle that has to do with the presentation of
the utterance as a whole rather than with the specification
of relationships between utterance constituents, which principle inclines signers to place verb signs in utterance-final
position (Li & Thompson 1976, Washabaugh in press). Such
a principle advocates, but does not require, the specification
of the topic early in the utterance. The topic, once specified, is to be followed by a verbal comment. Unlike the

Sign Language Studies 24

syntactic constituent, Subject, the Topic bears no marked

relationship either to the verb sign or to other noun signs
in the utterance. Instead Topic performs the discourse function of setting "a spatial, temporal, or individual framework within which the main production holds " (Li & Thompson
1976: 464). Such a Topic-Comment organization is said to
characterize utterances in ASL (Friedman 1976: 142); and the
evidence from both formal elicited signing as well as casual
signing points to that same principle of organization in
vernacular PSL.
An analysis of the above-mentioned corpus of fortyeight paired utterances elicited from eight deaf signers suggests the presence of a Topic-Comment principle of utterance
organization. Specifically, 0.70 of the forty-three codable
utterances of the corpus were verb final utterances. Where
verbs are final, noun signs appear earlier in the utterance,
and such a manner of utterance organization is consistent
with the Topic-Comment discourse principle.
Candid PSL signing corroborates the claim that PSL
signers make use of a Topic-Comment principle to organize
their utterances. Utterances (8) and (9) each begin with a
noun sign that has no apparent grammatical role to play in
the proposition that follows. Such "double subject" utterances (Li & Thompson 1976: 468) are distinctive earmarks of
Topic-Comment utterances.


ANDRES (r-19: 4) 'Long ago from the states a small
plane, two men from the states, one with black
sideburns, the other with light skin, flew while
drunk and crashed in San Andres.'



ABORT DEAD (F-6: 4) 'About this cleft-lipped boy,
his mother, now dead and father gone, took pills
and aborted her baby.'



Besides this Topic-Comment organization,

vernacular PSL is characterized by repetitiousness similar to that of ASL (see Stokoe 1973: 53). Either
particular signs or combinations of signs are frequently
repeated or complemented by additional expressions. In the
corpus of forty-eight paired utterances elicited from eight
deaf signers, forty-four utterances were codable for repetitiousness, and of those forty-four utterances thirty (0.68)
contained signs that were repeated or complemented by
additional signs.
The communicative advantage to be gained from such
repetitiousness might not be immediately apparent. But a
reconsideration of (1), page 199, will show that ambiguous
utterances may be distinguished through such repetitiousness.
The utterances in (1) were elicited with puppet sequences
that involved only an action of hitting. The utterances that
describe that hitting action are ambiguous, because the signs
for agent and patient are not distinguishable; however, by
repetition of the noun signs and the addition of the verb sign
CRY with appropriate noun signs, the signer provides an
utterance-internal context that the receiver can use to disambiguate the utterances. Thusin repeated expressions,
cues can be laid down, which in the absence of other disambiguating devices, facilitate a proper interpretation of
the utterances.
In summary, deaf signers on Providence Island do not
make use of a word-order principle but do employ a TopicComment format in constructing utterances, and they do employ repetition as one of the sorts of devices for distinguishing
ambiguous utterances.
The contrasts between the vernacular
sign language and the spoken language of Providence Island have been made clear in the above
discussion. Given that hearing persons play a significant
role in the PSL signing community, it is reasonable to wonder
whether the hearing really acquire this typologically distinct
sign language, and how they acquire it. Such questions
about the acquisition of the sign language by hearing persons
are not only reasonable, they are theoretically well advised,
because the answers to them will shed light on the central
theoretical question of the nature of the human virtue for
language acquisition.
Hearing signers .

Sign Language Studies 24

I gathered data on the signing abilities of the hearing

by using a formal elicitation instrument. Thirty-three hearing
persons were asked to describe in sign the actions in each
of eight sequences portrayed by hand puppets. The hearing
persons signed descriptions of the sequences they saw to
other islanders-in all but ten instances to deaf islanderswho had not seen the puppet sequences. The stimulus
sequences are described below:

Old man takes photo of black-bearded man.

Black man gives candy to black-bearded man.
Black-bearded man takes photo of old man.
Black-bearded man gives candy to black man.
Old man washes face of black man.
Black-bearded man combs hair of black man.
Black man washes face of old man.
Black man combs hair of black-bearded man.

Two comments on these sequences are in order. First, most

of the actions in these sequences are such that they would
normally be signed by verb signs that do not have vectoral
or directional qualities (GIVE is an exception) that might
specify the semantic relationship between the noun signs
related to the verbs. Also when such verbs appear in an
utterance with two noun signs, the semantic relationship
between the noun signs is ambiguous, since either noun
sign could serve as patient or agent. In other words, neither sign formation nor semantic context could clarify the
meaning of any utterance describing these sequences in PSL.
Second, the stimulus actions above are paired so that the
agent in 1. is the patient in 3., etc. Accordingly this elicitation method sets up a rather tightly controlled test of a
signer's ability to produce contrasting utterances.
The 264 utterances elicited by this procedure are
predictably variable. For any particular stimulus action of
the puppets, some hearing signers produce curt three-sign
SVO utterances; others produce repetitious, verb-final
utterances. The proximate objective of the following analysis
will be to discover a patterning in this variation, with the
expectation that such a pattern will provide clues about the
process of sign acquisition by hearing persons.
Patterns of variation can be discovered by distinguishing groups of hearing signers and by discovering a correlation


between such groups and a type of signing variation. Hearing

signers may be grouped according to any number of factors,
age, sex, residence, etc.; and there is ample sociolinguistic documentation for the correlation of such factors
with spoken language variation. So it is likely that e.g.
age, sex, and residence are factors that contribute to the
variability in the corpus of 264 utterances. However, I
will sidestep these factors and concentrate on one factor
that is likely to be indicative of differential success in the
acquisition of the target language. The term for this factor is
"distance. "
Schumann (1978: 76) argues that language acquisition
in general will be stalled if "the learner is socially and/or
psychologically distant from the speakers of the target language." "Distance" itself is a product of political and
social inequality, of lack of social cohesiveness, of the
absence of residential contiguity, and of unfavorable attitudes of the groups toward each other (ibid.: 77). In sum,
"distance" subsumes a complex of factors that inhibit "real
communication" between the language learner and the users
of the target language (ibid.: 107).
In the Providence Island community, where the deaf
are the users of the target language, hearing acquaintances
of the deaf are socially and psychologically more "distant"
from the deaf than are the hearing members of households
containing deaf persons. The hearing acquaintances of the
deaf should therefore be less advanced in their acquisition
of the sign language than the hearing members of deaf households. Accordingly, these two groups of language learners
should vary in their signing competence. The hearing acquaintances of the deaf should show that they have acquired fewer
of the distinguishing features of vernacular PSL than do the
hearing members of deaf households.
To test this hypothesis I examined the patterns of variation between the utterances of these two groups with regard
to the placement of verb signs and the repetition of signs.
According to the hypothesis one would predict that the characteristics of vernacular PSL would be more clearly apparent
in the signing of hearing members of deaf households than in
the signing of hearing acquaintances of deaf persons. Tables
1 and 2 show that the prediction is supported by the evidence.
Hearing members of deaf households employ verb-final utterances in 0.53 instances as contrasted with 0.29 for the
hearing acquaintances of deaf persons. Also hearing members

Sign Language Studies 24

of deaf households repeated at least one element in 0.44 of
their utterances as contrasted to 0.14 repetitions in the
signed utterances of hearing acquaintances.
While these frequencies are clear enough to demonstrate a tendency in the variation, they become even stronger
if we adjust the membership in the two groups according to
the sociolinguistic description made earlier. Specifically,
we noted that some hearing members of deaf households may
be too young to enter into "real communication" with the
deaf members of their own households. Such may be the
case for hearing signer #15, who is the young niece of a
mature deaf man. It is important to note that signer #15 uses
verb-final utterance pattern and repeats formatives only
0.25 of the time. It is likely that signer #15 has had no
greater contact with deaf signers than have many hearing
acquaintances of deaf persons, and so she should be reclassified as a hearing acquaintance. On the other hand,
certain hearing neighbors of the deaf have befriended deaf
persons who live alone or with only deaf companions. In
the process those hearing neighbors seem to have acquired
an advanced competence in signing. Signers #18 and #29
are twq such persons, and their high frequencies of verbfinal utterances and repetition give witness to that fact.
These two signers have as much contact with deaf signers
as do many hearing members of deaf households and so
should be reclassified.
These adjustments in the groups strengthen the correlation between competence in signing and "distance" as
measured by household membership-both correlations are
significant beyond a 0.001 level of probability. 4 With the
group membership adjusted, hearing members of deaf
households employ verb-final utterances 0. 64 of the time
compared to 0.23 for the hearing acquaintances of deaf
persons. And they repeated formatives 0.43 of the time
compared to 0.13 of the time for the hearing acquaintances.
The signing of the hearing members of deaf households with its rather high frequency of verb-final utterances
and with its repetitiousness is like the vernacular signing
of the deaf. But that is not to say that hearing members of
deaf households have acquired all other characteristics of
vernacular PSL to an equally advanced degree. When word
order is considered, the picture becomes a good deal more

Hearing Members
of Deaf Households

Hearing Acquaintances
of the Deaf

Hearing Members
of Deaf Households

Hearing Acquaintances
of the Deaf










Frequencies of Verb-Final format

in utterances of two groups of
hearing signers.





Frequencies of Sign repetition in utterances of two

groups of hearing signers.

Sign Language Studies 24

The deaf signers of Providence Island do not make use

of a word-order principle. This observation is based on the
observations already made on the frequency of orderings of
agents and patients in a corpus of utterances by deaf signers.
That frequency, 0.57, was only slightly above chance. If
this same measure is applied to the corpus of utterances
produced by hearing signers, it is found that as a group,
the thirty-three hearing signers placed agent signs before
patient signs in 0.99 of their utterances. Nor is there any
difference in this frequency between the signing of hearing
acquaintances and members of deaf households. Both groups
placed agents before patients in 0.98 of their utterances.
Thus the corpus of utterances elicited from hearing signers
provides clear and unmistakable support for an observation
that the hearing signers-all the hearing signers-of Providence Island make use of a word-order principle in the organization of their utterances, despite the fact that the deaf
signers do not.

The foregoing observations can be used

to identify certain stages in the acquisition of PSL by hearing signers. First, the utterances of the
hearing acquaintances of the deaf suggest that the early
stages of sign language acquisition involve replacement of
constituents of spoken language by signs of PSL. The rhetorical structure of the spoken language utterances is kept
by these signers: verbs are placed in the middle of their
utterances, and the succinctness of spoken language utterances is maintained. As acquisition advances, the complex
and general features of PSL utterance organization are
acquired: the hearing signers acquire a verb-final format
and the characteristic repetitiousness of vernacular PSL.
But word order, a most basic feature of the spoken language
structure, seems to be least available for replacement by a
sign language organizing principle in the process of sign
language acquisition.
It is possible that once the hearing have acquired in
their first language a word-order principle-or perhaps any
sort of general autonomous syntactic principle; they cannot
dispense with that principle, regardless of the nature of the
target language to be acquired. In the specific case of PSL,
the hearing signers seem unable to dispense with the word
order of spoken language and replace it with the ensemble of
context-dependent syntactic devices that disambiguate the


utterances of vernacular PSL. It is as if autonomous syntactic

principles like word order and context-dependent syntactic
devices, such as those in PSL, constitute distinctive roads
that can be taken in language acquisition. These roads may
be so fundamentally distinctive that having selected the
road of autonomous syntax, human beings cannot go back
and recover the road not taken.


The data in this paper were gathered during the spring

of 1977 and summer of 1978. The fieldwork was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant BNS 7680056). I am grateful to the Center for Latin America, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, for ancillary funds for
research assistance and for travel to present an earlier
version of this paper at the Linguistic Society of America
Conference in Boston, 1978. I am grateful to Donnie Dean
and Lynne Goldstein for their technical assistance, to
William Stokoe for his comments and criticism, and to
Cathy Washabaugh for her assistance in gathering data and
editing the final manuscript. Mostly I am grateful to the
people of Providence Island for their hospitality and

These descriptions have revealed some of the distinguishing features of vernacular sign languages. But in
so doing they have uncovered a problem that should be
mentioned. If sentence organization in sign languages is
founded on principles that are distinct from those underlying
sentence organization in spoken languages, then it will be
necessary to redefine the notion of sentence in sign language
(see Baker & Padden 1978: 35). More specifically, if principles other than case marking and word order are used to organize constituents in a signed sentence, then the boundaries
of such signed sentences cannot even be set until the complete
set of such principles is made explicit. Lacking an explanation of the principles that relate constituents, one could not
determine where one sentential unit in a discourse ends and
where another begins. A number of sign linguists are working
at the task of identifying the syntactic principles employed in
vernacular sign languages and also at identifying extra-linguistic

Sign Language Studies 24

cues that might help to define sentential units (Covington
1973, Baker & Padden 1978, Grosjean & Lane 1977, Liddell
1978), but at this point no one has claimed to have discovered
a set of features that can segment signed utterances into
signed sentences unequivocally. Until such time as definitive syntactic principles or cues are described, sign linguists
must continue to use gross features to isolate sentential units
(e.g. the return of hands to rest position; Stokoe 1973: 5) or
continue to deal with syntax in such a way that the question
of sentence boundaries will not be raised. I have tried in
this paper to describe some of the features of PSL syntactic
organization without assuming more than a rough knowledge
of PSL sentence boundaries. Accordingly, I will refer in this
paper to the characteristics of PSL utterances rather than of
PSL sentences.

The interlinear elements in utterances (3), (7), and (9)

are glosses for non-manual expressions that co-occurred
with the manual sign glossed directly above.

A t-test was used to measure the variance of sign characteristics between the two groups. The results are as
follows: For the variance in verb finality between nine hearing
members of deaf families and 24 hearing acquaintances of
deaf persons, t = -4.4824, with a significance exceeding
0.001; for the variance in repetitiousness between nine hearing
members of deaf families and 24 hearing acquaintances of
deaf persons, t = -4.1890,with a significance exceeding
0.003. The dependent variable data consist of ratios of actual
occurrences (of verb-final format or of repetition) to possible
occurrences. An abnormal distribution of those ratios within
samples could not be verified by tests for skewness and
Baker, Charlotte, & Carol Padden
Focusing on the Non-Manual Components of
American Sign Language, in Understanding Language through Sign Language Research, Siple ed.
(New York, Academic Press), pp. 27-58.



Bellugi, Ursula, & Susan Fischer

A Comparison of Sign Language and Spoken Language, Cognition, 1, 173-200.
Covington, Virginia
Juncture in American Sign Language, Sign
Language Studies 2, 29-38.
Fischer, Susan
Influences on Word Order Change in American
Sign Language, in Word Order & Word Order Change,
C.N.Li ed. (Austin, Univ. of Texas Press), pp. 3-20.
Friedman, Lynn
The Manifestation of Subject and Topic in American
Sign Language, in Subject & Topic, C.N.Li ed.
(New York, Academic Press), pp. 127-148.

On the Other Hand (New York, Academic Press).

Grosjean, Francois, & Harlan Lane

Pauses and Syntax in American Sign Language,
Cognition 5, 101-117.
Li, Charles, & Sandra Thompson
Subject & Topic: A New Typology of Language, in
Subject & Topic, Li ed. (NY, Academic Pr.), 457-489.
Liddell, Scott
Non-Manual Signs and Relative Clauses in American Sign Language, in Understanding Language
through Sign Language Research, Siple ed. (New
York, Academic Press), pp. 59-90.
Schein, Jerome D.
The Deaf Community (Washington, DC, Gallaudet
College Press).
Schlesinger, I. M.
The Grammar of Sign Language & the Problem of
Language Universals, in Biological & Social
Factors in Psycholinguistics, Morton ed. (Urbana,
University of Illinois Press), pp. 98-121.

Sign Language Studies 24

Schumann, John
The Pidginization Process: A Model for Second
Language Acquisition (Rowley, MA, Newbury House).
Stokoe, William
Sign Syntax and Human Language Capacity, Florida
Foreign Language Reporter, Spring/Fall, pp. 3-6 &
Sign Language Autonomy, in Origins & Evolution of
Language & Speech, Harnad & Steklis eds. (New
York, NY Academy of Sciences), pp. 505-513.
Washabaugh, William
in pr
The Manu-Facturing of a Language, Semiotica.
- - - - -, James Woodward, & Susan DeSantis
Providence Island Sign Language: A Context-Dependent Language, Anthropological Linguistics
20(3), 95-109.
Woodward, James
1978a Attitudes toward Deaf People on Providence Island:
A Preliminary Study, Sign Language Studies 18, 40-68.
1978b Attitudes toward Providence Island Sign Language.
Unpublished MS, Gallaudet College, Washington, DC.
- - - - -, S. DeSantis, & William Washabaugh
in pr
Getting Back to Nature: Unhomogenized Linguistic
Analysis, Selected Papers of the 1975-1976 NWAVE
Conferences (Washington, DC, Georgetown U. Pr.).
William Washabaugh is an Assistant Professor in the anthropology department of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
His master's degree is from the University of Connecticut
(1970) and his Ph.D. from Wayne State University (1974).
His studies of Latin Americans have taken him both to the
Caribbean and to the urban and rural settings to which they
emigrate. His research interest is focused on culture and
language in changing societies.