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Two distinct sign language systems evolved in America. One was used by white and another used by blacks. They continue to coexist and have many signs that would be unrecognizable to people who use the other system.

Blacks evolved distinct sign language system

Carolyn McCaskill remembers exactly when she discovered that she couldn’t understand white people. It was 1968, she was 15 years old, and she and nine other deaf black students had just enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Ala.

When the teacher got up to address the class, McCaskill was lost.

“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill recalls through an interpreter. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”

The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, just a few miles away. It wasn’t a simple matter of people at the new school using unfamiliar vocabulary; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.

So, McCaskill says, “I put my signs aside.” She learned entirely new signs for such common nouns as “shoe” and “school.” She began to communicate words such as “why” and “don’t know” with one hand instead of two as she and her black friends had always done. She copied the white students who lowered their hands to make the signs for “what for” and “know” closer to their chins than to their foreheads. And she imitated the way white students mouthed words at the same time as they made manual signs for them.

Whenever she went home, McCaskill carefully switched back to her old way of communicating.

What intrigues McCaskill and other experts in deaf culture today is the degree to which distinct signing systems – one for whites and another for blacks – evolved and continue to coexist, even at Gallaudet University, where black and white students study and socialize together and where McCaskill is now a professor of deaf studies.

Five years ago, with grants from the National Science Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, McCaskill and three fellow researchers began to investigate the distinctive structure and grammar of Black American Sign Language, or Black ASL, in much the way that linguists have studied spoken African American English (known by linguists as AAE or, more popularly, as Ebonics).

Their study, which assembled and analyzed data from filmed conversations and interviews with 96 subjects in six states, is the first formal attempt to describe Black ASL and resulted in the publication last year of “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL.”

What the researchers have found is a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English.

The book and its accompanying DVD emphasize that Black ASL is not just a slang form of signing. Instead, think of the two signing systems as comparable to American and British English: similar but with differences that follow regular patterns and a lot of variation in individual usage.

In fact, says Ceil Lucas, one of McCaskill’s co-authors and a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet, Black ASL could be considered the purer of the two forms, closer in some ways to the system that Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet promulgated when he founded the first U.S. school for the deaf – known at the time as the American Asylum for Deaf Mutes – in Hartford, Conn., in 1817.

Mercedes Hunter, a hearing black student in the department of interpretation at Gallaudet, describes the signing she and her fellow students use as a form of self-expression.

“We include our culture in our signing,” says Hunter, who was a research assistant for the project, “our own unique flavor.”

“We make our signs bigger, with more body language” she adds, alluding to what the researchers refer to as Black ASL’s larger “signing space.”

Different systems

When she tries to explain how Black ASL fits into the world of deaf communication, Lucas sets out by dispelling a common misconception about signing.

Many people think sign language is a single, universal language, which would mean that deaf people anywhere in the world could communicate freely with one another.

Another widely held but erroneous belief is that sign languages are direct visual translations of spoken languages, which would mean that American signers could communicate fairly freely with British or Australian ones but would have a hard time understanding an Argentinian or Armenian’s signs.

Neither is true, says J. Archer Miller, a Baltimore lawyer who specializes in disability rights and has many deaf clients. There are numerous systems, and American Sign Language is based on the French system that Gallaudet and his teacher, Laurent Clerc, imported to America in the early 19th century.

“I find it easier to understand a French signer” than a British or Australian one, Miller says, “because of the shared history of the American and French systems.”

In fact, experts say, ASL is about 60 percent the same as French and unintelligible to users of British sign language.

Within signing systems, just as within spoken languages, there are cultural and regional variants, and Miller says that he can sometimes be stumped by a user’s idiosyncrasies.

So it’s hardly surprising, Miller says, that Americans’ segregated pasts led to the development of different signing traditions – and that contemporary cultural differences continue to influence the signing that black and white Americans use.

Regional and cultural differences in signing are a constant challenge for interpreters, according to Candas Barnes, a professional interpreter based at Gallaudet, who describes the role as a “continual decision-making process.”

Sometimes a black public figure might shift into African American English and back, as Oprah sometimes does, to make a rhetorical point. The interpreter, Barnes says, may or may not switch into Black ASL, “depending on who the audience is.” A primarily white audience may not understand Black ASL, she points out.

Distinct style

There’s little evidence of Black ASL in the Gallaudet University classroom when McCaskill leads a diverse group of about 20 students in a discussion of “The Dynamics of Oppression,” a course that examines oppression across different cultures and explores parallels in the deaf community.

In the classroom, just as in a professional setting, Lucas says, students and teachers generally employ a formal, academic norm, much as would be the case with spoken English.

But as students break into smaller discussion groups, their signing becomes more colloquial. They refer to regional differences in signing and occasionally stop to discuss a sign that is unfamiliar to one of them.

And when a smaller group of black students meets to describe and demonstrate the distinctive flavor of Black ASL, they refer emotionally to their attachment to their own brand of signing and how it reflects their identities as black members of the deaf community.

“It shows our personality,” says Dominique Flagg, through an interpreter.

“Our signing is louder, more expressive,” explains Teraca Florence, a former president of the Black Deaf Student Union at the university, where 8 percent of the student body is black. “It’s almost poetic.”

Proud as they are of its distinctive rhythm and style, Flagg and the other students say they worry about assumptions others make about their signing.

“People sometimes think I am mad or have an attitude when I am just chatting with my friends, professors and other people,” Flagg says.

Others express concern that Black ASL is sometimes seen as less correct or even stereotyped as street language, echoing a sentiment expressed by some black signers interviewed for the book who describe the ASL used by white people as “cleaner” and “superior.”

It’s a familiar feeling for McCaskill, who remembers how she had to learn to fit in with the white kids at her integrated school all those years ago.

“I would pick up their signs,” McCaskill says.

And when she went home, she remembers, “friends and family would say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re signing like the white students. You think you’re smart. You think you’re better than us.’ ”

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