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Sign Language Studies: Pidgin Signed English (PSE)


In a message dated 2/21/2006 1:43:14 PM Pacific Standard Time, an ASL teacher writes:


I am currently reading a book that keeps referring to the codemixing of ASL and English that we often use as Pidgin Signed English (PSE).  I know that when I first started learning ASL 10 years ago this is how it was referred to, but I know that in the last 5 years I have been taught (and been using) the term Contact Sign.  So my question is, which is correct, and why the change?

The newer term is indeed "contact signing."
I personally do not have a problem with the term "PSE." You will meet people who have read certain ASL linguistics texts that promote the term "contact signing" and discourage the term "PSE."  These people will then proceed to tell you that the term PSE is inaccurate and that the "right" term is "contact signing."
One of the reasons they might give you for this is that the characteristics of various other pidgin languages and the circumstances from which they arise are somewhat different from the characteristics of contact signing.
That being said, I could very, very easily make an argument for PSE by simply googling the phrase "pidgin languages" and doing a mini-lit-review on the term wherein lo and behold you will note that a great deal of existing and emerging literature describes the characteristics of  pidgin languages to be very, similar to the characteristics of "contact signing."
For example, the first hit on google came up with this gem from the University of Pennsylvania:
<<Pidgin language (origin in Engl. word `business'?) is nobody's native language; may arise when two speakers of different languages with no common language try to have a makeshift conversation. Lexicon usually comes from one language, structure often from the other. Because of colonialism, slavery etc. the prestige of Pidgin languages is very low.>> (Source:, retrieved 02/20/06)
So, you can see that making a case for the term "PSE" should be relatively straightforward.
Except for one thing.  "Consensus."  When enough people start using a new term--eventually that becomes the "standard term."  At the point which something becomes "standard" it takes on an air of "correctness."  But it is only correct because a bunch of people say it is. A few years later it may very well be considered incorrect.

For more on this topic, check out this book review:  American Sign Language by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely.


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