U-M Linguistics doctoral student Marjorie Herbert presented her QRP work, "Code-blending or Language Innovation?: Contact Signing in the American Deaf Community," at LCILP alongside U-M Linguistics professor Acrisio Pires.

This conference took place on the campus of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) in Donostia-San Sebastian. Marlyse Baptista also presented her work.


Code-blending or Language Innovation?: Contact Signing in the American Deaf Community


American Sign Language (ASL) is standardly-analyzed as a contact language, and sometimes as a creole (Senghas and Coppola 2001). Complicating this issue, some authors claim that natural ASL is recreolized by every successive generation of deaf children (i.e. emerges as a partially new system in each generation), the majority of whom receive variable or degraded visual-manual input (Fischer 1978). Furthermore, the effects of interaction between ASL and spoken English within the bimodal bilingual community and the individual remain contested and in need of further research attention. Our study aims to address one dimension of this contact, the nature of ‘contact signing’ (Lucas & Valli 1989, 1992), as employed by d/Deaf signers in the U.S.

What is contact signing? According to Lucas & Valli (1992), the outcome of bilingual contact between English and ASL is contact signing, a variety of oral and manual articulation that is arguably neither English nor natural ASL. In opposition to previous analyses of this phenomenon as a pidgin language (Pidgin Signed English; PSE; Woodward 1980), Lucas & Valli situate contact signing as a broad category on Lee’s (1982) so-called signing continuum. Lee’s proposed continuum runs from natural ASL on one extreme to spoken English on the other, with many subtle gradations in oral and manual articulations between these extremes. For those authors, the category ‘contact signing’ encompasses a wide range of productions that do not result from the grammar (I-language, in our terms) of either natural ASL or spoken English, and they argue that the majority of manual articulations produced by native signers in the U.S. do not correspond to ‘natural ASL’, irrespective of social or communicative context (1992).

Lucas & Valli conclude contact signing is governed by a grammar distinct from both English and ASL grammar, a claim they do not develop extensively. This conclusion implies that contact signing is akin to a distinct dialect or language, meaning it could be acquired separately from both English and ASL. In parallel, Kuntze (2000) found that, when faced with a monolingual English audience, a group of native signers (who acquired ASL before age 3) systematically had more English-like (i.e. contact signing) productions than the group of signers who acquired ASL after age 6. The late-learners produced natural ASL utterances almost exclusively. Furthermore, Hoffmeister & Moores (1987) observed similar effects in their study of signers with Deaf as opposed to hearing parents.

These authors argue that this would not be expected if contact signing were a distinct language variety. Instead, these studies suggest contact signing is a behavior exhibited by highly competent bilingual individuals. The current study evaluates these competing proposals on the basis of new experimental data.

Current Study

Lucas & Valli proposed two descriptive dimensions of variation for contact signing: the degree to which an oral or ‘mouthed’ articulation of the corresponding English word accompanies the manual articulation of an ASL sign, and the degree to which surface SVO word order and non-indigenous, English-derived inflectional morphology are used (1992: 101). The current study re-examines these dimensions, focusing on ASL classifier constructions, English mouthing, fingerspelling, and ASL pronoun usage. In sign languages, classifiers are handshapes that can be used to represent a noun in the signing space, and they display characteristics of the referent they stand in for within a discourse. (Sandler & Lillo-Martin 2006). Accordingly, classifiers are hypothesized to be native to ASL (Supalla 1986; Padden 1988; Lucas & Valli 1989, 1992). English mouthing can be defined as the silent articulation of spoken English words as a signer manually articulates ASL signs. This production feature is thought to derive from spoken English (Battison 1978, Davis 1989, Lucas & Valli 1989, 1992). Finally, fingerspelling is a system through which signers arguably borrow English words by spelling them via the manual alphabet.

In terms of design, the 38 participants included in the current study were recruited in pairs in the Chicago, IL area. All d/Deaf participants were asked to bring a friend with ASL knowledge to sign with them on the day of the study, in order to ensure they were comfortable and engaged in “bilingual mode” (Grosjean 1984). In the first condition, a d/Deaf adult interviewed the pair for 15 minutes on topics concerning Deaf culture and the Deaf community. Next, in condition 2, the pair were asked to continue signing with one another alone for 15-20 minutes. After the conversation, in condition 3, each member of the pair signed the stories outlined by a set of picture cartoons without language to the d/Deaf confederate. Five-minute representative clips of the first two conditions, and the entirety of the third condition were annotated with the transcription software ELAN.

Preliminary results

A generalized linear mixed model has been used to analyze data from the first twenty participants. Interestingly, when the linguistic data only, i.e. the four features mentioned above, were taken into account, a combination of English mouthing and condition appeared to be a predictor of both fingerspelling and classifier use. The odds ratios calculated indicate that the odds of fingerspelling production are 2.75 times higher for an average signer who mouths than for an average signer who doesn’t mouth, while holding condition constant. On the other hand, the odds of producing a classifier for a participant who mouths are 11.5% of the odds of producing such a structure for a participant who doesn’t mouth, holding condition constant. These results seem to support the hypothesis that English mouthing and fingerspelling are related behaviors, whereas the production of classifiers, as a supposed ASL-indigenous feature, are inhibited by English mouthing behavior.

When audiological status, age of acquisition of English and ASL, and reported competence in ASL and English were taken into account, age of acquisition of English and ASL were found not to be significant predictors of any of the four linguistic features; however, when reported competence in ASL and English, condition, and audiological status were taken as predictors of English mouthing, all three were found to be statistically significant, with p-values of less than 0.02. Self-rating of English competence of 5-7 on a 1-7 point scale seem to correlate positively with higher instances of English mouthing across conditions, and a self-rating of ASL competence of 6 on a 1-7 point scale was found to negatively correlate with English mouthing. Furthermore, when English mouthing, condition, and ASL competence were taken as predictors, a self-rating of ASL competence of 7 was found to negatively correlate with instances of fingerspelling.

Discussion and Conclusion

If correct, these preliminary results seem to suggest that varying levels of competence in their two languages influence these bilingual’s productions. Higher English competence was found to predict increased odds of English mouthing, whereas high ASL competence tentatively predicted lower odds of English mouthing, as well as fingerspelling. If we hypothesize that high odds of English mouthing and fingerspelling are indicative of contact signing, i.e. not natural ASL, then it seems that bilinguals with higher English competence are more likely to show features of contact signing, whereas bilinguals with higher ASL competence are less likely to show them in their production. This finding suggests that contact signing is more like code-blending than a distinct variety of ASL, since we would expect to see no significant difference between less proficient and more proficient bilinguals, if contact signing were indeed a language variety.