Black American Sign Language Is Distinct from Its Mainstream Counterpart, Study Shows

Alexis Stodghill, The Grio, September 18, 2012

Carolyn McCaskill, is a deaf, African-American woman who has made it her profession to study deaf culture. A professor at Gallaudet University, the famous institution for deaf and hard of hearing students, McCaskill has been ensconced in such learning communities from a young age. But when she entered a racially integrated school for the first time at 15, she was shocked to learn that she could not understand the signs of her fellow students and teachers — because they were white.

“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill told The Washington Post about her ordeal. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’” The teenaged McCaskill had to relearn signs for simple words and the correct spaces around her body in which to make them in order to communicate.

“I put my signs aside,” she said.

McCaskill’s puzzlement at the divergent form of sign language American blacks use is not unique. Many in the deaf community have long observed the differences between how blacks and mainstream groups sign, and the fact that such distinctions persist even when blacks and whites closely socialize.

Now, in the first study of its kind, McCaskill and a team of researchers have examined the communication practices of 96 deaf subjects to understand the variations of black signers. In seeking to understand how Black American Sign Language — or Black ASL — has evolved, the study authors conducted personal interviews and analyzed films of the participants.

What they uncovered is “a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English,” according to Post. The resulting book, “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL,” and the accompanying DVD, emphasize that Black ASL is not just ASL with a few “slang” signs thrown in. Black ASL contains unique signs for everyday terms, in addition to alternate hand placements — such as at the forehead versus under the chin — that are a radical departure from their American Sign Language (ASL) counterparts.

Blacks also imbue their signing with style. Referred to academically as the bigger “signing space” of Black ASL, a research assistant who contributed to the study described it as a form of expression.

“We include our culture in our signing,” Mercedes Hunter told the Post. “We make our signs bigger, with more body language,” the hearing African-American student at Gallaudet elaborated, which stresses the “unique flavor” of the communicator.


Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • ncpride

    “We include our culture in our signing,” Mercedes Hunter told the Post. “We make our signs bigger, with more body language,”

    What this tells me is that even when deaf, blacks are still ‘loud’, obnoxious and  can’t ‘speak’ proper English. The ebonics of ASL.

    • You know, on a completely unrelated note, Koko the gorilla was taught to sign, and I watched a special on her once. She spent the entire interview signing to her trainer for food. “Good fruit for Koko.” “Melon.” “Apple for Koko.” It was actually very funny.

      • Sherman_McCoy

        “Completely unrelated.”  Right.

    • haroldcrews

      Black people appear to have difficulty with nuance.

      • Indiana Guy

        yes, in native african languages, nuance does not exist. One can not say a coconut is at the top of the tree, three quarters of the way up, half way up, etc., one can only say it is “up”. This is elaborated on in a good article called “Morality and Abstract Thinking – How Africans may differ from Westerners”. Their brains really are different, and when they are removed from influence of white people, they revert back to their true nature.

        • Screamin_Ruffed_Grouse

          Reminds me of a skit on an old episode of “Chapelle’s Show.” In it, Dave Chapelle an inordinate & obscene pleasure in beating a White, ten-year-old cancer patient in a basketball video game, complete with all the yelling, posturing, & obnoxious jump/screech/fling poo behaviour one expects from Earth’s most soulful race. The nearly all black live audience watching it (the show was nothing more than Chapelle “MC-ing” a collection of prerecorded skits in front of them) hooted, hollered, cheered and guffawed their approval with much enthusiasm.

          Truly soulful. Speaks volumes about the state of the black soul.

          • Indiana Guy

            That is quite telling and shows one more way in which blacks differ. They are only motivated by the opportunity to destroy and take pleasure in that destruction, be it property or people. White people build, and take pleasure and pride in what they build. Most black people wake up in the morning with a goal of finding an opportunity to violate another person or thing, or join in on a group violation started by someone else.  This is the only non physical pleasure they can conceive of and it is why their humor is almost always a collection of insults. White people wake up every day with the goal of accomplishing something, building something, creating something. They have IQ’s that can allow for this possibility and they like to compete with each other or against themselves in such endeavors. It is no accident at all that while Europe had built cities with multistory buildings of marble and steel, sewerage systems, electricity grids, roads, books and culture, the africans never built more than a one story mud hut, never developed writing, never made a sea worthy vessel. But they had massacres after massacres after massacres, and blood feast an after blood feasts after blood feasts that were never recorded for posterity. What happened in Rawanda was just africans reverting to their pre colonial behavior. All of africa is doing this. They are reverting to their inner nature.

        • haroldcrews

          I’ve read that article before.  It is rather insightful.

  • Hilarious!  So they even sign loudly and in ebonics.

    • Ulick

      “Let me aks you a question?”  is signed with an axe swinging motion.

  • Tim_in_Indiana

     when she entered a racially integrated school for the first time at 15, she was shocked to learn that she could not understand the signs of her fellow students and teachers  Whoah! Black and white sign language are so different that she couldn’t even understand what whites were saying and she had to practically relearn the language? What that indicates to me is a race that is unable to conform to accepted norms and standards of society. What they uncovered is “a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English,”  Oh, so it’s the fault of segregation, is it? But earlier in the very same article, it says: Many in the deaf community have long observed the differences between how blacks and mainstream groups sign, and the fact that such distinctions persist even when blacks and whites closely socialize.  Obviously just more liberal doublespeak.

  • IKantunderstand

    Said Malcolm Xavier Braille:” Oh, yeah, we be signin’ wit style! Right now, I be workin’ on ebonic Braille, baby!”

  • C_C_Conrad

    OH !  I’ve heard of that.  It’s called hand jive >

  • bluffcreek1967

    I wonder how they sign, “Nome sayin?”? Whatever that sign gesture is, Blacks are going to use it a lot!

  • Defiant White

    I can’t understand most blacks when they speak so this is no surprise.  I don’t know if they have a distinct cultural accent or a speech impediment or are just slow or if their tongue is too big . . . I don’t know.  I do know that I’ve heard blacks all over this country and they all sound the same to me. 

    It’s especially bad in the Army when you have to talk to one on the radio.  It used to be that senior officers would take younger blacks aside and counsel them on their speech, but today, that’s all gone.  That would be considered “racist.”

    • IstvanIN

       One of my better employees asked me last Friday if I needed an “ambulamps”, they actually say it like that, it was all I could do to keep from laughing.

      • Shawn_thefemale

         It’s true!! That’s exactly how they say it!! And the PO-leese often accompany that ambulamps.

        • John Bonham

           Actually the way I hear it is as .. ” Amberlamps .. They usually throw an extra ‘R” in words  i.e  compruter , fruneral .. Ect.ect And none of them speak in plural .. ” I think I know a black kid voice when I hear it.  Ya feel me ?

      • Indiana Guy

        At work, I once had an order for a “hankerscriff”–the person wanted a scarf.

    • humptydumpty

      They let blacks talk over the air in the service? I certainly hope they never let them call in air or arty missions.

      • US_Eurolad

        God that is scary to think about. “Gibsmedat Airstrike on free, fo’, eight, aight?!”

    • Up to my neck in CA

      There is a App for the i-Phone named “Police Scanner +”. You can tune into any police dispatcher in any state. For fun on Friday and Saturday nights I tune into Detroit, Chicago or Oakland. The AA hire dispatchers are hilarious! You can’t understand their mumbling and are often asked to repeat themselves. Often times they will also start rambling on and on randomly about nothing. It is a serious eye opener on the state of large cities diverse police and fire departments.  It’s a free app so I recommend everyone with an i-Phone to get it.

  • What does the ever popular crotch grope mean?

    • IstvanIN

       Do we want to know?

    • Indiana Guy

      they have crabs

  • I’m sure when ASL was developed the originators did not think they were developing a sign language for Whites only. Instead they were standardizing a communication form that could be utilitized for the average person of average intelligence. Therein lies the rub. Repeatedly where ever you find Africans you find substandard (fill in the blank) ______.  Seriously, fill in the blank with: language, hygiene, neighborhoods, test scores, quality of life, work ethic, crime, venereal disease, etc. etc.  Leave it to some liberal author to classify this as “a rich signing sysytem”. Reminds me of an article in National Geographic that was praising the high-level artform called “Hip-Hop”. Give me a break.

  • Do Asians, esp East Asians, learn ASL correctly? Or do they also bastardize the language?

    Is there “Black American mathematics” too?

    The possibilities — or should I say, “the permutations and combinations” — boggle the mind. LOL!

  • Biff_Maliboo

    ‘ What they uncovered is “a rich signing system that reflects both a
    history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black
    English,” according to Post.’

    Oh, vomit.

    Do “those people” ever do anything that isn’t “rich” and culturally expressive?

    Even the deaf and dumb ones are annoying…

  • 1proactive2

    Wonder how they sign, richly, “buss a cap (fire a gun), droogs (drugs), hair-o-on (heroin) blunt” or “beeatch (well, you know)”? 

    Then there’s the most common black expression used for both insult and exclamation that can’t be written here in this forum. Even little old black ladies say it, and it has to do with a sex act with one’s mother. How in the world will they sign that?

    • Indiana Guy

      I wonder how they sign “hair weave”? Maybe it comes out as “Asian women’s hair on my haid”

    • Anonymous

      Is that word just a prerogative of blacks? This video should put things in perspective.

  • John Bonham

    Black even sign in ebonics .. Now I’ve seen everything ..

  • John Bonham

     I call that chicken necking.. lmao

  • John Bonham

    Ball caps , to the back and sideways like with a doo rag, the color of their gang underneath ..

  • Shawn_thefemale

    Odd, how bad habits, wild and uncontrolled, impulsive and rebellious behavior falls into the classification of  ‘culture’.

    • Screamin_Ruffed_Grouse

      In White culture, all of those things are recognized as traits of a child’s mentality. Nome sane?

  • Indiana Guy

    True, in ebonics, there is only  the present tense. The sentence “He be goin’ ” can mean “yesterday, he be goin’ to da sto when he be shots.”  or “He be goin to da sto when he gits up at noons” or “he be goin to da sto to jack some sheet right now”

  • Indiana Guy

    Yo, ambulamps be “east side and amberlance be “west side”, gnomeasayin?

  • Screamin_Ruffed_Grouse

    Interesting. Improper placement, made-up signs & “stylized” geatures = poor grammar, primitive slang & grandiose obnoxiousness.

    Yup, just throw in a liberal dose of middle fingers and gang signs & you have exactly what I’d expect of Black American Sign Language.

    I wonder if deaf Whites have signs for the racial slurs they might be thinking after dealing with deaf blacks?

  • ncpride

    I don’t have any experience with black deaf people, but I have conversed with many White deaf people. ASL can be complicated. For example, when one wants to say…’I don’t like it’, there are certainly signs for each of those words, but there is also a single sign that means the same thing. What is taught in the classroom is FAR different IRL. Deaf people rarely use words such as ‘it’s, and, the, to’…etc.. Two signs can easily express an entire sentence. Until one is exposed to deaf people and ‘talk’ to them on a regular basis, it’s hard to understand . Also, facial expression is vital when communicating with them.