Of course there are dialects of ASL. Why wouldn’t there be?

Someone on Google+ today asked me what I thought of the article All Things Linguistic — Dialects of Sign Language: Black ASL. I responded with the following comment, which I felt should be shared here:

Yes, I’m familiar with this. The segregation of black Deaf children in black Deaf schools, and the segregation of black and white people in general, led to a distinct variety of ASL. The cultural and linguistic heritage of that dialect endures today.

When I was a video relay service (VRS) interpreter, I saw Deaf people call in from all over the US, and I learned a lot of different signs I had never seen before, since there are so many regional varieties. I saw difference in pace, rhythm, signing space, syntax, words that were fingerspelled instead of signed, and vice versa.

I wish this would not come as a surprise to hearing people who know nothing of ASL, because they should understand that ASL is as varied as spoken language, and emerges and evolves organically among language communities. Instead, it seems most hearing people assume that ASL is a fixed system invented by hearing people and taught to Deaf people all over the world. They also seem to assume that Deaf people take what is “given” to them without question or alteration. Of course they don’t realize they assume this, but the way they talk about it, they do. For example, when I tell them I am an ASL interpreter, they assume I teach ASL to Deaf people, as if Deaf people needed a hearing person to teach them how to communicate. They also say things like “why isn’t it universal? It should be!” I ask them “why isn’t English universal?” They seem to take for granted that hearing people have the sovereignty to create and use their own languages, yet they think Deaf people don’t create their own ways of communicating, and should be made to communicate the same way all over the world.

I’ll leave you with the video that inspired the original article:

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