We’re all aware of the large number of dialects that make up our spoken languages around the world. But with many ignorant of the fact that separate forms of sign language exist in different countries, there’s even less education on the different dialects that populate specific sign language families.
Black ASL Origins
Take American Sign Language, for example. The Washington Post tells the story of Carolyn McCaskill, who in 1968 enrolled with nine other Deaf black students in a newly integrated school for the Deaf. From the Post:
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.
Today we know that McCaskill grew up using what is now called Black American Sign Language. This form is known for using more two-handed signs than American Sign Language, with Black ASL featuring a higher location of signs (at the forehead level) and a larger space used compared to ASL.
Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explains and demonstrates the differences in ASL and Black ASL here:
Sign language is not universal. The different dialects need to be studied independently, just as one would study spoken languages. We can help spread this message by supporting education on the subject, such as the Black ASL Project. Another great resource is this interview conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education with Joseph Hill, who hopes awareness will make sign language a bigger part of the linguistics community.
For more diversity in sign languages, see also this map of the major sign language families of the world. It’s interesting to note that ASL and FSL (French Sign Language) are more similar than ASL and BSL (British Sign Language), which is the opposite of the spoken languages in these areas.