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The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL
October 13, 2012 4:06 AM   Subscribe

When Carolyn McCaskill was 15 years old, she and nine other deaf black students were enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Alabama. McCaskill had learned American Sign Language at home with her two deaf siblings and at the nearby Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind. "When the teacher got up to address the class, McCaskill was lost." The American Sign Language used by the teacher and white students at her new school looked different than the American Sign Language that McCaskill had learned at home and at her previous school. Today, McCaskill is one of the leading authorities on Black ASL, which has distinctive features as a result of a history of segregated schools for the deaf and the influence of spoken black English. She is a professor at Gallaudet University, the co-director of the Black ASL Project, and a co-author of "The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL."
posted by Area Man (41 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is not a treasure as much as a tragedy; splintering ASL along racial lines only ensures that deaf minorities will remain marginalized even more compared to their non-minority counterparts. I don't see why unique black ASL words can't be integrated into proper ASL.

Just imagine if blind minorities had their own Braille...
posted by Renoroc at 5:25 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see why unique black ASL words can't be integrated into proper ASL.

For the same reason we can't all speak the same language. Culture and language are intertwined, and you'd be hard-pressed to separate them.
posted by anifinder at 5:29 AM on October 13, 2012 [13 favorites]


Just imagine if blind minorities had their own Braille...

ASL is a language, Braille is not. This is like saying, "I don't see why unique Creole words can't be integrated into proper English." There is no 'proper' English and there is no 'proper' ASL, outside a classroom.
posted by muddgirl at 5:45 AM on October 13, 2012 [15 favorites]


I believe Angela is her sister. See the interview here, which is an interesting interview in its own right. I just cannot imagine the hurdles she had to overcome in her life as a black, deaf woman in the South growing up in the 1950s with essentially a single mother raising 5 kids. She convinced her mom to allow them to go to a school, starting in 7th grade, 500 miles away just to receive a better education. To then arrive at that school and have to learn a new language?

All five children in that family graduated from college. That mother raised fighters, didn't she?
posted by Houstonian at 6:04 AM on October 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


Well, sign language blows my mind once again. (The last time was when I found out that there is a thing as a "hearing accent"...which in retrospect makes sense...but, it took a while for my brain to settle on that.)

The interesting part I read from the article was this:
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.
So I mean, if we were going to talk about "proper" ASL (ugh...I was also perturbed by the graphic that contrasted black ASL with "mainstream" ASL)...then wouldn't the argument be that Black ASL is more "proper"?
posted by subversiveasset at 6:23 AM on October 13, 2012


I had no idea, I knew about British SL being different, but not this. Segregation is the gift that just keeps on giving down the years. (Needs sarc mark).
posted by arcticseal at 6:53 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting. Is there such a thing as an "accent" in sign language? Could a speaker of one SL understand another that is slightly different but perceive the difference?
posted by deathpanels at 7:01 AM on October 13, 2012


That was really interesting. The idea that you'd change your sign style based on the audience, and would need to be fluent in white ASL AND black asl to be an effective signer in some contexts, raises my respect for interpretors once again.

Article also has a great opening line.
posted by subdee at 7:12 AM on October 13, 2012


If black ASL is a "tragedy" and not a treasure, then so is yiddish. After all, those poor folks had enough problems. On top of all that, some of them didn't even speak proper german.

I think you can dislike oppression and discrimination, and still appreciate how people can love expressing themselves in their own language.
posted by Area Man at 7:13 AM on October 13, 2012 [18 favorites]


Does the popularity of hip hop culture among the "mainstream" lead to increased understanding or acceptance of black asl? We used "word" and "bad" the way the article describes in my high school (which, granted, was about half black).
posted by subdee at 7:14 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


This wikipedia article states that sex-segregation in Irish catholic educational insitutions resulted in male and female versions of Irish sign language.
posted by Area Man at 7:18 AM on October 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


ASL is alao regionally dialectic. I remember learning the standard sign for spaghetti men's "orange juice" in Texas.
posted by atomicstone at 7:18 AM on October 13, 2012


Err, for "raises my respect for translarors" substitute "makes interpretation sound like hard work." Because it sounds like hard work, especially to be able to fluently switch between the two.
posted by subdee at 7:21 AM on October 13, 2012


atomicstone, that may have been a typo, but it's now the name of my next novel: "Spaghetti Men's 'Orange Juice' In Texas." Righteous. Not sure what it'll be about, but does it matter?
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:22 AM on October 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Orange Juice: The Day I Went Down to Texas
posted by the bricabrac man at 7:33 AM on October 13, 2012


Haha. Stupid iPhone. And stupid thumbs. Men's=means
posted by atomicstone at 8:00 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think you can dislike oppression and discrimination, and still appreciate how people can love expressing themselves in their own language.

Absolutely, I have a hobby-level interest in ASL and still knew nothing about the differences between these languages. Interesting note in the article is how according to McCaskill Black ASL is closer to the original sign language that Galludet created. Thanks for the neat post.
posted by jessamyn at 8:06 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


muddgirl: It becomes a tragedy when it impedes communication and keeps people from learning. Language has one purpose: To allow people to communicate; anything which impedes that is a problem. The fact that students who learn BASL have trouble going to schools taught in WASL is a problem, possibly even a tragedy if it contributes to a cycle of poverty.
posted by Canageek at 8:12 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


General rule for thinking about signed languages: they're just as complex and diverse as spoken languages. There's many different sign languages. And even within a single language like American Sign Language there's lots of variation: accents, grammatical variations, different vocabulary. Signed languages are every bit as "real" as spoken languages. This isn't some political position (although it is that too), it is well established linguistic fact.

I don't know anything about Black ASL other than the Washington Post linked here. But from reading that it sounds analagous to African American vernacular spoken English. Essentially the same language, but with some pronunciation changes, some unique vocabulary, and a bit of its own grammar. And people can switch back and forth between them depending on cultural context. In retrospect I don't see why anyone is particularly surprised that some variants of ASL are centralized on race or class. Is this one of those things all the students at Gallaudet have known for years and only now is someone writing formally about it?
posted by Nelson at 8:18 AM on October 13, 2012


The Times called it AAE; it is often called AAVE, as in the above linked post. Emphasis on V: Vernacular. The Ebonics debate a couple of decades ago was a little silly. By now most Americans recognize that Blacks aren't "doing it wrong," they're just doing it differently. Very differently, in some cases. A southern drawl is one thing; a dialect with a different grammar is another. It is correct in AAVE to say "She here.", with an implied "is", just as "Come here" implies an unspoken you. The use of the word "be" in AAVE is notoriously different than any word in Standard English, implying a continuing state. Obviously, it is useful for black Americans to be fluent in Standard English, but it all depends on the people one interacts with, etc.

It's interesting to read about the difference in ASL dialect. I know just about zilch in regards to signing, but I imagine there would be a lot more elisions of words we use in Standard Written English, especially.
posted by kozad at 8:54 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're interested in AAVE, you'll be interested to know that AAVE's pronunciation of "ask" as "aks"/"axe" is surprisingly how it used to be pronounced. In fact, Chaucer would have used the "wrong" pronunciation. Metathesis is incredibly common in the development of languages, and the fact that our culture considers this one example of it a sign of how dumb "the blacks" are is a pretty good reminder that, no, we don't live in a post-racial America. In the modern U.S., "ask" is a shibboleth.
posted by deathpanels at 9:14 AM on October 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


muddgirl: It becomes a tragedy when it impedes communication and keeps people from learning. Language has one purpose: To allow people to communicate; anything which impedes that is a problem. The fact that students who learn BASL have trouble going to schools taught in WASL is a problem, possibly even a tragedy if it contributes to a cycle of poverty.

The tragedy is the existence of racially and economically segregated schools, not the existence of more than one language. Language does exist to allow us to communicate, but it's not "tragic" that more than one language exists.
posted by rtha at 9:30 AM on October 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


Language has one purpose: To allow people to communicate

Most linguists would disagree with that.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:30 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Kutsuwamushi: "Most linguists would disagree with that."

Well, then they need to express themselves better, because that's not the message I heard.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:21 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Language has one purpose: To allow people to communicate; anything which impedes that is a problem. The fact that students who learn BASL have trouble going to schools taught in WASL is a problem, possibly even a tragedy if it contributes to a cycle of poverty.

Is it tragic that Mexican children learn Spanish and not English?
posted by muddgirl at 11:28 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Also, my understanding is that all deaf kids now learn WASL in schools, but BASL is still used in the homes. Just like many regional dialects and vernaculars in the US.)
posted by muddgirl at 11:29 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Growing up in Hawaii, I spoke Hawaiian Pidgin (which was already a creole at that point and not a pidgin anymore) everywhere but in the classroom, where we were only supposed to use Standard English. Lots of my classmates had grown up in Pidgin-only homes, and while they certainly understood English without trouble, Pidgin does have its own syntax and grammar and some of them had more trouble learning subjects that were heavy on the writing than those of us growing up in homes where English was the predominant or only language.
posted by rtha at 12:18 PM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, then they need to express themselves better, because that's not the message I heard.

I'll pass this on to the people in my department.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:22 PM on October 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I find regional dialects and slang fascinating, whether a spoken language or something like signing.

I read the Wikipedia article for my hometown a few years ago and was reminded by it about how people there used American Indian as slang and casually mixed them in with everyday conversation - something that I'd not even *noticed* until I'd been away a few years and then read about it online.

Even moving a short distance (Anadarko, OK to Oklahoma City, OK - 61 miles apart) completely eliminated that bit of "local flavor".

Then I moved from OKC to Austin, TX, and got kidded about my Oklahoma accent by my Texan coworkers... Sixteen years later, I don't know if I have a "Texan" accent, but I do notice a drawl that only comes out when I'm very tired, stressed, or have talked to my mom for more than 10-15 minutes...
posted by mrbill at 2:32 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll pass this on to the people in my department.

Ok, I'll bite. If the primary purpose of language is not to communicate, then what is its primary purpose?
posted by Houstonian at 2:56 PM on October 13, 2012


noted goalshift: "language has one purpose" --> "if the primary purpose..."
posted by subversiveasset at 3:06 PM on October 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Alright then. I was allowing that language has more than one purpose. But if it has only one purpose, and that is not communication, then what is it?
posted by Houstonian at 3:17 PM on October 13, 2012


Communication is definitely the primary purpose, but identity runs a pretty close second. If communication was the only goal then I think over thousands of years languages would have consolidated a lot more than they have. But still minority languages persist (even among people living in a culture that doesn't speak their native language) as a sign of cultural identity. That's not to say languages aren't dying off as their cultural populations shrink, but for the most part people aren't rushing to switch to more widely spoken languages simply because it will allow them to communicate with more people.
posted by fishmasta at 3:25 PM on October 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


if it has only one purpose, and that is not communication, then what is it?

Where did this question come from? I indicated that I think the statement "language has one purpose: to allow people to communicate" is false. Does it follow for you that I believe language has one purpose, but that it's not communication? I don't see anywhere else you could have gotten that.

I don't have much to say past what fishmasta wrote. Language is an important part of culture and identity for all of us. Even those of us who think we have fairly neutral accent are using our language unconsciously to establish who we are and who we identify with. When people complain that the only thing non-standard accents accomplish is impeding communication, they're privileging the expression of certain identities through language over others.

And it's not a coincidence that the identities that get privileged are tied to race, education, and socio-economic class.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:27 PM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Communication is definitely the primary purpose, but identity runs a pretty close second. If communication was the only goal then I think over thousands of years languages would have consolidated a lot more than they have. But still minority languages persist (even among people living in a culture that doesn't speak their native language) as a sign of cultural identity. That's not to say languages aren't dying off as their cultural populations shrink, but for the most part people aren't rushing to switch to more widely spoken languages simply because it will allow them to communicate with more people.
As a follow up, consider something like Gaelic or Hebrew. Both were effectively dead languages until recently, when a group that considers the language to be a part of a shared culture worth preserving decided to begin an intentional revival.
posted by deathpanels at 1:22 AM on October 14, 2012


Thank you so much for posting this! Back in my other lifetime, I wanted to do my honors thesis research on (an aspect of) ASL. Manual language is completely fascinating to me in its structure and syntax, and it's still depressing to me how little is known in popular culture about it (eg, the most common being that people seem to think that there's just one sign language in the world for deaf people ?!?!?!).
posted by circle_b at 9:23 AM on October 14, 2012


An answer to the question that I think Houstonian was trying to ask is that one other purpose for language besides the communication of ideas is the establishment of cultural identity.

The language that one speaks or the way in which one speaks it marks one as a member of one or more cultural/subcultural groups. This has both positive and negative implications, but among the positive implications is that it facilitates the preservation of unique cultural heritages by helping people recognize those around them who are likely to have been brought up in a similar cultural milieu as themselves. A shared accent or dialect can, for instance, help remind members of an oppressed minority of their fundamental not-aloneness, and reassure them that there are others out there who understand their struggles.
posted by Scientist at 3:30 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kutsuwamushi: The reasons that early pre-human ancestors started grunting at one another was to share information about how to hunt, and later on how to make tools, not to establish an identity.

muddgirl: The fact that more then one language exists is a tragedy yes. The fact there are books I can't read is a problem. If we only had one language then every human would have access to every piece of knowledge. Why should someone be restricted from knowing something because it is written in Russian or German or Spanish.
posted by Canageek at 2:41 PM on October 24, 2012


Fine, let's lay off all the translators and language teachers and we'll all learn to speak Basque.
posted by muddgirl at 2:44 PM on October 24, 2012


Well, we can keep one Basque teacher employed for each language that will be eliminated.
posted by muddgirl at 2:48 PM on October 24, 2012


Why should someone be restricted from knowing something because it is written in Russian or German or Spanish.

There are now many sources (free, even! and online!) for teaching yourself other languages. What's stopping you?

Also, we have evolved from our early human ancestors. Language has more than one purpose, and has for a very long time.
posted by rtha at 3:18 PM on October 24, 2012


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