Researchers studying American Sign Language know that, just as what linguists call African-American English, or Ebonics, differs from "standard" English, black sign language users have their own unique patterns. (Think: a system under which "bad" means "really good," and the sign for "word" translates to "that's the truth" — plus, bigger and more expressive motions). 

But in the first attempt to formally describe what a recent publication calls "The Hidden Treasures of Black ASL," they've now documented how the distinct structure and grammar evolved and how they continue to exist.

The Washington Post reports on Tuesday that the explanation is about more than just slang sign. It involves America's history of segregation, cultural preferences and ongoing dilemmas about code switching for different audiences. Sound familiar?

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."

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 research assistant for the project, "our own unique flavor."


Read more at the Washington Post.