American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is the natural language of the Deaf community in the United States and parts of Canada. There are many different sign languages used around the world, and each one evolved within a specific linguisitc community. As such, ASL is central to the cultural identity of Deaf Americans. Lane, Hoffmeister & Bahan assert that the values, mores, customs and history of Deaf culture are embedded in ASL, emphasizing the importance of the visual modality through which ASL is expressed. This enables social interaction to take place in a medium that is always fully accessible to Deaf individuals.

ASL is a distinct language that evolved within the American Deaf community and should not be considered a gestural representation of English. Over the years, many attempts have been made to impose English syntax and grammar onto sign language. The result has been the development of a number of sign systems that borrow heavily from the ASL lexicon but rely on English syntax and morphology. However, it is important to realize that these sign systems should not be confused with ASL which is a complete and natural language in its own right. Due to the influence of signed systems and other regional differences, a variety of dialects are used and accepted by the Deaf community today.

ASL is a complex, rule-governed language that takes full advantage of the visual-spatial modality through which it is presented. Paul describes some of the key features of ASL. Phonology is based on hand shapes, movements, and position. A finite number of linguistic units exist which can be combined into words and sentences according to specific linguistic rules. One of the most interesting features of ASL is the ability to incorporate two or more concepts simultaneously. Nonmanual features such as facial expression, eye gaze, brow, lip, cheek and tongue movements, and shoulder and head movements are all considered grammatical elements of ASL and can be used to express questions, negation, size, duration and other concepts. Morpohological inflection is often expressed simultaneously as well. Verbs, nouns and adjectives are not usually modified in a linear pattern, such as by adding a grammatical element to a base word, but rather through alteration in the movement of the sign. Changes in movement or reduplication significantly impact the meaning of an utterance. Taking advantage of the spatial aspect of signed language, pronouns and time adverbs are among some of the concepts distinguished by spatial arrangement. Although a basic subject-verb-object word order is commonly employed, syntax does not rely on this structure to show grammatical relations. The ability to simultaneously present concepts and information frees the choice of word order for other types of expressive communication. Topic-comment syntax is one example of the flexibility inherent in ASL.

ASL is the primary language of a sizable minority population (Deaf culture) with an estimated 500,000 to 2 million speakers. In recent years, ASL has been recognized as one of the top 15 languages taught in colleges and universities in the U.S. Opportunities to learn ASL are expanding with an increasing number of classes offered across the country.

ASL Manual Alphabet

The manual alphabet was created to borrow foreign English words and has become an important element of ASL. The practice of manually spelling individual words is known as fingerspelling. The appropriation of useful linguistic elements from the surrounding dominant language demonstrates the dynamic adaptability of ASL and underscores its distinction as a viable, living language.

Original Contributor: Matthew Olsen, Winter term 2007

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