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A Deaf Linguist Explores Black American Sign Language

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Students were required to wear hearing-assistance devices in schools like the Southern School for the Colored Deaf and Blind, in Scotlandville, La. The school was established in 1938. (Image courtesy of Joseph Hill, Black ASL Project)

Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, believes he is the only black, deaf, Ph.D. linguist in America, and maybe in the world. “Just me,” he told an audience of about 40 people on Sunday at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. “No pressure,” he added.

Hill, who is 34, and tall, was giving a talk, “How Black ASL Can Create Opportunities for Diversity in Sign-Language Research,” as part of a symposium on diversity in linguistics. He was speaking in American Sign Language, of course, but because his lips moved along with his hands, to a listener in the back of the room it seemed as if he, and not the interpreter, was talking. That is, until Hill’s lips stopped moving and the voice of the interpreter kept going. (The interpreter turned out to be seated unobtrusively at the front, speaking into a microphone with his back to the audience, so he could read Hill’s signing.)

Before Hill got to the research opportunities, he gave a brief history of how deaf education led to Black ASL. The first school for the deaf was established in Hartford, Conn., in 1817, by Thomas Gallaudet, a hearing American whose son would later found Gallaudet University, in Washington, and a deaf Frenchman named Laurent Clerc.

Hill produced a chart that showed how the schools spread across the country. But the first school for black deaf children in the South—at least, south of the District of Columbia—didn’t open until 1867, in North Carolina. Southern schools remained segregated until well after Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, and it wasn’t until 1978 that the last Southern state, Louisiana, fully integrated its schools. So it is not surprising that deaf African-Americans developed and were taught their own version of ASL, just as some black Americans speak African-American Vernacular English, sometimes called Ebonics.

Many hearing people think sign language is universal, but it is not. Hill, who was born deaf, studied in Italy on a Fulbright and speaks Italian, as well as ASL, Italian SL, and Black ASL. American Sign Language developed based on the French sign language that Thomas Gallaudet learned from Clerc, so American and French signers understand one another better than British and American signers do, for example.

Hill is one of four authors of The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL, a 2011 book that explores the differences between Black American Sign Language and the ASL of whites in America. The differences are significant enough that black deaf students who went to segregated schools couldn’t understand white teachers and classmates when the schools integrated. The researchers created a filmed corpus of conversational vernacular Black ASL as it is used in the South, and the book examines some of those differences, which include disparate gestures for some words, such as “deer” and “have,” and whether words are signed with one hand or two.

But Hill, who is a member of the specialized-education-services department at the Greensboro campus and directs its ASL teacher-licensing program, says there are many more research opportunities, including chronicling changes in Black ASL as its signers have more contact with white signers, and with spoken African-American Vernacular English. He told us about the Black ASL Project, which seeks the recollections of people who went to black schools for the deaf. Much more is to be learned about the schools themselves. And his own research has only begun to look at lexical variations between ASL and Black ASL—the different signs for the same word—and at what linguists call “prosody” in sign, the use of facial expressions, eye and head movement, and other physical behaviors.

“Black signers tend to be more theatrical,” he said later via telephone, using a video relay service and an ASL interpreter to take the call. White signers, especially older people, may sign in a smaller space because they were taught to be discreet.

Hill had a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for his linguistic studies at Gallaudet, where he got his Ph.D. Although there are deaf psychologists who study linguistic issues, Hill believes he is one of only about 15 deaf linguists in the United States, and a few more in Europe. “I know one in Italy, there’s one in England, I know of one in Germany,” he says. “The study of ASL in linguistics started in 1965,” he adds, “so it’s fairly young.”

He hopes that as American deaf linguists become better known, deaf people here and in other countries may be inspired. “We would like to see more people in the field,” says Hill, who hopes not just to attract researchers to the Black ASL Project but to spark interest in other sign-language subcultures, too.

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