Gallaudet professor Carolyn McCaskill demonstrates differences in sign… (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
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.
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 African American 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 reseach 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.”
No universal language
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, explains J. Archer Miller, a Baltimore-based lawyer who specializes in disability rights and has many deaf clients. There are numerous signing 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.