The sign language cultural divide: Or, duh! African Americans have their own sign language

I love when something mundane comes out and surprises.

Did you know there is African American sign language, just as there is African American English (AAE, or more popularly, Ebonics)? It is a distinct version of American Sign Language, often including signs and mannerisms entirely different from the standard counterpart.

Researchers have been studying this phenomenon and have found, not surprisingly, "a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English." Students who learn the sign language taught in their schools return home and use the sign language they grew up using there. Simple words like "shoe" and "school" are communicated with signs entirely unique from one another across the two sign languages.

This is highly fascinating, and yet, absolutely logical. It seems like a no-brainer for a group with a distinct culture and linguistic system to also have its own language for communicating with the deaf. Of course there are differences in style and meaning, in slang, and in body language. It makes total sense that, just as those who are deaf outside the realm of American Sign Language would have their own versions of sign languages, so to would various cultures within the U.S. It just never occurred to me. A Washington Post article addressed this interesting issue:

... It’s hardly surprising, Miller says, that Americans’ segregated pasts led to the development of different signing traditions — and that contemporary cultural differences continue to influence the signing that black and white Americans use.

Some differences result from a familiar history of privation in black education. Schools for black deaf children — the first of them opened some 50 years after the Hartford school was founded, and most resisted integration until well after the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision of 1954— tended to have fewer resources. Students were encouraged to focus on vocational careers — repairing shoes or working in laundries — rather than pursuing academic subjects, Lucas says, and some teachers had poor signing skills.

But a late-19th-century development in the theory of how to teach deaf children led, ironically, to black students’ having a more consistent education in signing. The so-called oralism movement, based on the now controversial notion that spoken language is inherently superior to sign language, placed emphasis on teaching deaf children how to lip-read and speak.

Driven by the slogan “the gesture kills the word,” the oralism theory was put into practice in the United States predominantly in white schools. Black students, Lucas says, were left to manage with their purely manual form of communication.

Ultimately rejected by people who felt it prevented deaf people from developing their “natural,” manual language, oralism fell out of favor in the 1970s and ’80s, but white signers continued to mouth words.

This brings up all sorts of interesting questions for me. Like, which do you sign at a public event, especially if there might be a predominantly African American audience? As someone whose only use of the Englis language is spoken, it is already hard for me to conceptualize a sign or motion for every concept we have in the spoken language, though I know sign language is complex and has its own depth. It just mystifies me even more to imagine that you might fully understand sign language and still not understand someone in your same country, that they could be signing the equivalent of gibberish. Then how do you address the situation, move forward, and communicate among one another? It's probably one of the smaller obstacles deaf people face in their life, really, but it is a foreign to me, which is why I've never thought about it in terms of different races and cultures living in a context of the same spoken language. But it makes perfect sense.

The charm of Indian English, filled with literary gems

"And what would your good name be, sir?" asked the greeter, with the Dickensian formality that only India has preserved.

So begins writer Benjamin MacIntyre's visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival (read it all here), an event that's been held the last six years to relish in and appreciate the colorful wordplay, rhyming, and dose of formality that characterizes Indian English, and makes it its own distinct entity from the its British source. A few examples:

Unconstrained by received pronunciation, Indian-English delights in wordplay and internal rhyming, eliding words, inventing new ones, but also retaining the elaborate, grammatically correct constructions of an earlier age. A hair-washing is a "headbath"; when a politician scrambles from one place to another, he is "airdashing"; sexual harassment is "eve-teasing."

Couples without children are "issueless", and when a meeting is brought forward, it is "preponed", the opposite of postponed.

The Indian love of English words is on daily display in the crime reporting of Indian newspapers, where "sleuths nab evildoers" or "miscreants abscond" after committing "dastardly deeds."

Spring a year ago, I got to spend a whole semester thinking a lot about India, Pakistan, and larger South Asia, and grew to appreciate the charming quirks and vast diversity of the area even more than I had before. (There's at least one blog about that, here.) The whole concept of a taxi wallah or a chai wallah is stunningly sensible: "wallah" means "someone who does this" or "a person from here," so you might call me an Atlanta wallah. Saves a lot of syllables, and characteristically delightful Indian English. Last spring, it made my job as a mall sales associate a little easier, being instead a retail wallah.


America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.