Variation in American Sign Language

Open Access
Fleck, Maria
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Matthew Thomas Carlson, Thesis Supervisor
  • John Lipski, Honors Advisor
  • linguistics
  • sign language
  • language
  • variation
  • accent
  • ASL
  • Pittsburgh
Sign language variation is only a recently studied topic within the field of sign language linguistics. Current studies being completed by the Philadelphia Signs Project are making new discoveries about the existence of an “old Philadelphia sign” that exists in the older generation of Philadelphia’s Deaf community, but not in the younger generations of signers in the Philadelphia Deaf community today. This study seeks to explore the possibility of a sign variation in different generations of signers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Each sign, like in spoken language, is comprised of several meaningless elements which come together to create meaning. These meaningless elements are seen in the features of hand-shape, movement, location, and orientation of the manual modality of sign language. It is changes in these meaningless elements which create variation. To begin exploring the variation which exists in Pittsburgh, native signers from Pittsburgh who were either 18 to 35 years old or 50 or more years old were sought out as participants. Each participant was asked to give a sign and three sentences containing that sign for a variety of images. Many of the given signs demonstrated a variety of variation in the expected features. Overall, evidence was found for core features of every signs and areas in which variation is more likely to occur. The results of the data demonstrate vast opportunity for the modality of sign to influence sign language variation.