Black American Sign Language vs American Sign Language

by Yesha Callahan

Gallaudet University Professor Carolyn McCaskill’s labor of love has recently been featured in the Washington Post. The Black American Sign Language Project is a language project that is similar to the linguistics project that African-American English or more commonly known as Ebonics was derived from. Instead of focusing on the language used by African-Americans, it focuses on the version of sign language used. The Black American Sign Language Project, sponsored by Gallaudet University, aims to study the drastic differences between Black American Sign Language and American Sign Language. The project, which includes a book and DVD, makes it a point to show that Black ASL is not just about slang.

Professor McCaskill knew at an early age that the sign language she used at home was different from the version her white classmates used. It wasn’t just different words, but also the gestures themselves. When she was around her white classmates, she found that she couldn’t understand what they were signing in their version of American Sign Language (ASL). She had to acclimate herself to their gestures and the words they used. She also learned to mouth the words while signing, in conjunction with the hand gestures. But as soon as she was around her family, she would convert back to the signing she grew up with.

Mercedes Hunter, a hearing African-American student in the department of interpretation at Gallaudet says that signing that she uses as a form of expression. “We include our culture in our signing,” Hunter told the Washington Post, who was a research assistant for the project, “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.”

Ceil Lucas, one of McCaskill’s co-authors and a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet, says that Black American Sign Language could be considered the ‘purer’ of the form. And it is closely based on the system that Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet promoted when he founded Gallaudet University in 1817.

Lucas goes on to dispel the notion that sign language is universal. Unfortunately it’s not. A British or Australian person using sign language would have a hard time understanding an Argentinian or Amernian’s signs.

The Black American Sign Language Project proves that sign language is not universal. As with the English language, African-Americans have their own way of communicating with each other through sign. If you’d like to learn more about The Black American Sign Language Project, visit: http://blackaslproject.gallaudet.edu/BlackASLProject/Intro.html.

  • Yaad girl

    This is interesting. I’d love to see how this compares with the sign language used in my country, Jamaica- and other Caribbean islands.

  • http://twitter.com/dj_diva The MIXtress of R&B (@dj_diva)

    This was a great read!!!

  • http://gravatar.com/nesheaholic Nesheaholic

    Really interesting! I had no idea that signing wasn’t universal.

  • Ann Johnson

    Very interesting. I wonder which sign language an adopted child 5 or 6 years old from a different ethnic background would adapt to. That of his adopted parents or biological parents? I agree African-Americans have their own way of communicating.

    A lot of interesting information on their website as well.

  • C

    Interesting. I used to know sign language pretty well as a child, but since I don’t use it anymore, I’ve forgotten much of it. Since I did not speak it on a regular basis, I never knew there was a difference between black and white people in the way it was spoken.

  • ?!?

    Wow. I did not know this. That’s pretty cool.

  • Kam

    They would use the language they are raised with, just as an adopted Chinese child in an American family speaks English. African American sign language is not a biological sign language. It’s a language that’s perpetuated in social and cultural communities. You have to live in it to learn it essentially.

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