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American Sign Language: "Academic Diglossia"

When two languages or versions of a language are used within a single society we call that: "diglossia."

Deaf Communities in general and the American Deaf Community in specific are "diglossic." In the (American) Deaf Community we see a continuum of visual/gestural communication ranging from highly linear Signed English to highly depictive American Sign Language. "Real world" Deaf community signing is like a charcoal drawing wherein there are indeed strong differences between light and dark areas on the canvas. In various areas of the canvas you are definitely seeing "white" or "black"--but the transition is often smudged with no clearly defined line between the two.

A challenge faced by students is the unfortunate condition to which I refer as "Academic Diglossific Stratification of ASL" (or just ASL diglossia) wherein many "instructors" of ASL draw hard lines in the gray areas and declare, "This is black. That is white. This is right. That is wrong." We end up with two versions of ASL. The version used by the majority of people in the Deaf community -- and the academic version taught by instructors of ASL but absent on the hands of typical Deaf people.

There are those who will knee-jerk react to the topic of ASL diglossia. Such individuals know that ASL exists and they know that Signed English exists and are quick to label any particular example of signing as one or the other. They will conveniently overlook, dismiss, or ignore the existence of GRAY AREAS of signing that were formerly very clearly "Signed English" or very clearly "ASL" but have--over a period of time--become a gray area. Which is to say--signing that has become "debatable."

The faculty at the university at which I teach (at my "day job") do not all sign the same. Nor do we teach the same versions of (many) signs today that we taught 20 years ago. The newest member of our faculty uses a lot fewer "initials" in his/her/their signing than the older members of the faculty. Quite a few of the emerging versions of non-initialized ASL signs taught today would have been marked wrong by many ASL teachers 20 years ago if signed by a student on an expressive signing test.

A student may ask, "What is the ‘ASL' sign for ‘vegetable' -- when considering the answer I recommend you keep in mind the tendency for language to evolve toward efficiency. In the "old days" there was a "multiple-sign / expansion process" used to sign "vegetable." Languages tend to evolved toward efficiency. A "multiple sign" version of VEGETABLE will evolve toward a single sign version. A version of VEGETABLE that uses a flip movement, two contacts, and no memory association will likely evolve toward a version of VEGETABLE that users just one contact point, and a simpler twist movement that is associated with a related concept (such as the sign for fruit).

However, just because a particular language evolutionary path is "likely" to happen and/or would be more efficient -- doesn't mean it "will" happen because humans are strange and complex creatures. (I don't have a citation or reference for that but am willing to go on record or testify if asked.)

Social movements (or revolutions) can result in a community of language speakers (in this case "signers") choosing to forego (give up) linguistic efficiency for the sake of establishing (or promoting) their independence and individuality.

Many Deaf are willing to stop using "English initials" in our signing as a way of asserting our pride in our language and our culture. By disassociating (separating) ASL from English (by getting rid English initials in our signing) we are in effect empowering ourselves by removing our language from a position beneath, beholden to, or dependent in any way upon English and instead elevating ASL to a position alongside and equal to any language. The right or wrongness of any particular sign or signed phrase then becomes a matter of context and who is doing the judging.

This all gets back to "Dr. Bill's maxim: "Your local instructor is ‘right' for 16 weeks." Get the grade you want from the class then go out and interact with a wide variety of Deaf people. Pay particular attention to and give weight to the signing done by native Deaf-of-Deaf adults who attended state residential schools for the Deaf and who are active in the Deaf community.

- Dr. Bill

"A situation in which two languages (or two varieties of the same language) are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers," (Diglossia, 2016).

Diglossia [Linguistics]. (2016). In Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11/27/2016 from:





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