One country, two worlds — as if that needed reiterating. Frances Stead Sellers reports, in the Washington Post:
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 vocabularly; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students…
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…
I remember years ago learning that British English SL and American SL are completely different, but I didn’t realize their was a black-white divide on this side of the pond. Fascinating!
We should all just speak (or sign) Esperanto.
Ni ĉiuj devas nur parolas (aŭ subskribi) Esperanto.
I had no idea. I had classmates and got marginally proficient in high school — but we were all white.
@Baud: If you could make everybody speak it, within 30 days there would be dialects that were entirely unable to communicate with each other. Humans like to play with language and they aren’t gonna let a buncha language teachers stand in their way.
That’s why we would need Esperanto police.
Major Major Major Major
I knew about the ASL/BSL mutual unintelligibility and the accents and stuff, but I had no idea there were multiple institutionalized versions of ASL. How fascinating, and kind of sad, too, given the percieved socioeconomic markers of the two dialects that the article mentions.
Gin & Tonic
@Baud: Esperanto – a solution in search of a problem for over a century.
It’s a fascinating article and I really do appreciate Balloon Juice leading me to it, but may want to slightly edit the original blog post.
The way it is construed, about how “Frances Stead Sellers reports, in the Washington Post:” implies that this is a pretty recent article. But this is actually an article from 2012 according to the date on the article.
Who would rapidly develop their own slang police terms used so that ordinary speakers wouldn’t know what they were talking about.
a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q)
@Jim C.: Lotta that going around today.
@Jim C.: That’s pretty recent in the bigger scheme.
dance around in your bones
Sorry this is OT, but I have been trying to work my way through the Torture Report and I can only take about 15 minutes max then I have to take a break.
I wish I could sign like deaf people do, it would come in so handy at certain functions. Assuming, of course, that the person you were signing to knew the lingo.
I’m looking forward to AL’s next post about the Beijing Olympics.
You know how little kids sometimes put their hands over their ears in order to try to tune out adults. I have a deaf 15 yr old nephew. When he was young, he would look straight at you and close his eyes when he wanted to ignore you. You can try to pull a kid’s hands off his ears, but you cannot pry open a kid’s eyes. Used to crack me up.
I still speak ASL at about a 4 year old level. My brother says that he can’t understand a lot of what the kids sign because they have so much slang. His kids (one is hearing, but proficient in ASL) will sign around their parents when they don’t want them to understand what they are talking about.
Slightly OT, but when I was a kid, under 5 years old, my mother’s friend used to babysit us. She had a deaf son around my age and my mother insists I knew sign language and would communicate with him by signing. I have zero memory and after we moved away, I rarely saw them. I wish I would have kept it up.
@Jim C.: You’re right! It was at the top of the WaPo web page, and I didn’t even pay attention to the date!
Guess at least a few people must be looking for holiday gifts of ASL…
@skerry: One of my younger brothers is profoundly hard of hearing — which the grownups didn’t figure out until he entered first grade, because he’s one of triplets, and he learned to lip-read better than most toddlers because his brother & sister were speaking where he could see them.
He got dual hearing aids, and when my mom yelled at him, he’d make a big display of taking his earbuds out (& then shutting his eyes, if he was particularly cranky).
No harm, no foul Anne.
Thanks for finding it. I did find the idea of completely separate sign languages for blacks and whites interesting. My wife knows Swedish sign language and tells me that “American” sign language is apparently very different from the Swedish version that she knows. Apparently, there are also large differences between American White and American Black sign language but I wonder how much of those differences are a racial thing vs. the natural differences that spring up among dialects similar to how New Yorkers and Texans don’t have the same “accent”.
My wife says that the biggest difference is in grammar, that the signs are different but you can generally puzzle out the general gist if you know one form of sign language because so much of it is facial expression and body language.
I, as a poorly educated English only American schmuck, can only pass along what my Euro wife has told me naturally. :)
@Anne Laurie: My nephew got a cochlear implant as a pre-schooler. So the eye-shutting was before the implant. Sadly, the implant has stopped working and they are planning surgery in January to replace it. He is mainstreamed at school, so is using an interpreter for now. He is taking ASL as his “foreign” language in HS.
He has told his parents that he wants to attend Gallaudet Univ. to immerse himself in deaf culture. He feels that they have taken that from him with the implant and the mainsteaming. His way of rebelling, I guess. The use of the cochlear implant is quite controversial within the deaf community.
Major Major Major Major
@skerry: That reminds me of a classic Onion article, Deaf Man’s Deaf Friends Way Too Into Deaf Culture.
Glad to hear that the House M.D. episode on the subject of cochlear implants wasn’t completely making it up as it went along. (Joking, obviously. No offense intended.)
@skerry: I thought it was really bizarre that people didn’t want to hear until I became deaf in my right ear. Then the benefits started to occur to me. There are a lot of things that it’s simply better that you don’t hear. On a similar subject, I am working on a house that has plaster walls. The plaster kills almost all outside noise. It used to bother me, but now I really like it.
Thanks for posting Anne Laurie; this article seems very timely to me. My beloved aunt (last relative left on my mom’s side) died last week- she lost her hearing in college. In her case, she taught herself to lip read, but never managed to learn ASL, and it put her in a weird limbo. She couldn’t really connect with the deaf community because she didn’t know ASL and yet, of course, being a young deaf woman was very difficult in the early 1970s. I know she was engaged in college, but it ended, and I wonder now if the loss of hearing had anything to do with it. She never talked much about it; I think it was too painful, even 40 years later. She did get a cochlear implant, when they were still very new, but I don’t know that it gave her anything back; she was pretty much totally deaf my whole life.
That said, I sure wish she’d told us where she put the keys to her safety deposit box. We have been unable to find her will or get into her safety deposit box, where we assume the will is. My brother is currently acting as executor, but only because we all think we remember her saying he was executor. Without the will, we don’t know for sure. Make sure your loved ones know where all your important stuff is, folks! You will save them much stress later.
@Major Major Major Major: I sent the link to my nephew. It will be interesting to see what he thinks of it. I hadn’t seen it before.
@Jim C.: I don’t recall that episode. I’ll have to look for it. I do know that some people use the same sign for “vampire” as they do for “cochlear implant”. Not sure if that is standard usage, or a protest sign.
@Eric U.: It’s very handy when, in a dull meeting, you can lean your head and good ear on your hand and continue to look attentive while nearly completely tuning out. Being a supposed grownup does rather rule out the explicit closing of both eyes.
Sleeping on the good ear also a handy trick. Saves a ton of money as there’s no real reson to buy surround-sound etc systems. Downside? Spinning like a top looking for people when they yell at you announcing they’re “Over here!”. That is not an adequate description of location.
Major Major Major Major
@skerry: It reminds me of being a young gay. People tend to attach to themselves to a minority status a little zealously around that age… not that there’s anything wrong with being an activist, of course.
Name of the episode is “House Divided”. Season 5 episode 22.
@Nicole: I’m so sorry for your loss.
Your point about wills, keys, etc is well taken. I’m planning to redo mine soon when my youngest child turns 18 in a couple months. I need to clean everything up and get better organized before then.
@Major Major Major Major: I’d imagine that’s also an age where most people are already dealing with issues of feeling weird and out of place. Makes sense that those with some obvious source of difference would gravitate to each other — they’ve at least got an apparently easy ‘fix’ to what is also a general problem.
@Major Major Major Major: I’m encouraging him to rebel. I think it’s a normal, healthy part of being young. He is gravitating towards something that sets him apart from his parents (they are both hearing) and the majority culture. It will be up to him to decide how far into the deaf culture he wants to go. Since his implant, his parents have really skirted it and kept him out of a lot of it. He feels it is a birthright and I support that. He really hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to interact with other deaf or hard-of-hearing kids. He’s quite curious about it.
Also, I live near DC and would love to have him closer during his college years. He is a cool kid and loves me dearly. I’m the “fun aunt” that supports him and loves him unconditionally. We like to get into trouble together. I’m all about activism and making some waves. All the better if those waves are in my brother’s life. He’s quite the middle-class, middle-aged, straight white republican guy from Central Indiana. He needs a bit of boat-rocking.
There also was an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent on the same subject: “Silencer,” April 2007. “Members of the radical deaf community are suspects in the murder of a doctor who provides cochlear implants.”
L&O: Criminal Intent had an episode on cochlear implants and the deaf community. IT was pretty goo and explored the social side of community.
Makes sense that those with some obvious source of difference would gravitate to each other.
Well, maybe among the deaf community that happens, but from my experience that isn’t true among people who stutter.
@Gin & Tonic: Sorta like The Big Lebowski, then, a character arc in search of a plot.
Cool article. Thanks, [email protected]Jim C.: @Steeplejack: The TV show “E.R.” also had a couple of episodes on the cochlear implant. The male African American surgeon character (forget his name)–his son was born deaf. I forget who was on which side, but the surgeon wanted or didn’t want the implant and the child’s mother was on the other side. There were several shows that included the storyline–debates about deaf culture, talking to doctors, the couple fighting over it. Etc. I think eventually they decided to do it. Really interesting for those of us who didn’t know much about it. Plus it was really new technology at the time.
@Violet: The actor is Eriq La Salle and the character was Peter Benton. Although, IMO, his greatest role was Darryl Jenks in Coming to America.”
@Omnes Omnibus: That’s right! Thanks. I thought one of their names (actor or character) was Eric (okay, it’s Eriq so I was close), but wasn’t even sure about that.
American Sign Language derives in large part from French Sign Language, due to the fact that the original director of the American School for the Deaf, Laurent Clerc, was French. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the history.
yeah, well, you know,that’s just like, your opinion,man.
Why would anyone elect to not join the party? Why would one want to *limit* themselves?
I don’t get it.
@John Weiss:What some see as limits, others see as a different set of strengths and weaknesses. There can be more than one party.
Paul in KY
@Baud: How about The Esperanto Inquisition! Nobody expects them!
Paul in KY
@Gin & Tonic: Not having a universal language is a problem. Just don’t think Esperanto is the answer.