Does American Sign Language Have Accents?
Sign language has a rich history in North America. Long before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous tribes developed sign languages to communicate with deaf members. American Sign Language (ASL), on the other hand, traces its roots back to 19th century France. And like any language, ASL has evolved to reflect the cultural and regional differences of its users. Here’s a look at four ASL accents, and how they came to be.
Black American Sign Language
One of the most famous accents, Black ASL developed as a result of racial segregation in the United States. Deaf African American children, like their hearing counterparts, attended segregated schools. Over time, they developed a dialect of ASL that includes African American idioms, slang, and other cultural references.
Black ASL has larger spacing, which means some signs are produced further from the body. Users also tend to prefer signing with two hands, instead of one. However, many deaf African Americans switch between ASL and Black ASL, depending on the context of the conversation. In linguistics, this is known as code-switching.
Regional Differences in American Sign Language
Given that spoken languages have regional accents, it should come as no surprise that ASL does too. Below are just three of them:
- New York City. New Yorkers are known for their fast-talking, brusque demeanors. To keep up, ASL users from the Big Apple sign faster and use different body language and facial expressions. They also use NYC slang and tend to use more profanity!
- The City of Brotherly Love may not have a famous spoken accent, but it certainly does in ASL. Philadelphia sign language remains closer to French Sign Language, and retains some of its signs. Linguistics believe the accent traces its roots back to the first deaf school in the city, which opened in 1820 and closed in 1984. The longevity of this institution may have helped perverse this unique accent. Unfortunately, it’s disappearing among younger ASL users.
- The American South is known for its laid-back lifestyle and slower speech patterns. Similarly, Southern ASL users draw out signs to mimic the famous Southern drawl. They also touch their lower face and chest more when they communicate.
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