How ASL Evolves.

Amanda Morris has an excellent NY Times story (archived) about recent changes to American Sign Language:

For more than a century, the telephone has helped shape how people communicate. But it had a less profound impact on American Sign Language, which relies on both hand movements and facial expressions to convey meaning.

Until, that is, phones started to come with video screens.

Over the past decade or so, smartphones and social media have allowed ASL users to connect with one another as never before. Face-to-face interaction, once a prerequisite for most sign language conversations, is no longer required.

Video has also given users the opportunity to teach more people the language — there are thriving ASL communities on YouTube and TikTok — and the ability to quickly invent and spread new signs, to reflect either the demands of the technology or new ways of thinking.

“These innovations are popping up far more frequently than they were before,” said Emily Shaw, who studies the evolution of ASL at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the leading college for the deaf in America.

The pace of innovation, while thrilling for some, has also begun to drive a wedge between generations of Deaf culture.

Perhaps the most dramatic example: To accommodate the tight space of video screens, signs are shrinking.

“My two daughters sign in such a small space, and I’m like, can you please stretch it out a little?” said E. Lynn Jacobowitz, 69, a former president of the American Sign Language Teachers Association. “We chat on FaceTime sometimes, and their hands are so crunched up to fit on the tiny phone screen, and I’m like, ‘What are you saying?’”

The problem is familiar to Dr. Shaw, 44, and her wife, who is Deaf. (Just as there can be different signs for the same thing, Deaf is capitalized by some people in references to a distinct cultural identity.) They have four children, ranging in age from 7 to 19, who often use the language differently — signing with one hand, for instance, for words that she and her wife might typically make with both.

“When they’re talking with each other, and with their peers,” she said, “I have a very hard time following the conversation.”

From the beginning, signs that were more complex or crossed more zones of the body have tended to fall out of favor, experts said. But small screens appear to be accelerating that trend, both by encouraging tighter gestures and giving the new versions a way to spread quickly — just like a new dance move on TikTok.

“If a person sees someone they like on social media using a new sign, they might think it’s better and adopt it,” said Ted Supalla, a Deaf linguist who has researched the evolution of sign languages. “That’s a challenge for the community, because it’s a different kind of language transmission.”

Unlike spoken languages, American Sign Language is not typically passed down through generations of a family. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, so they have tended to learn from institutions or their peers rather than parents.

That creates a higher degree of variation between different generations of deaf people than is typical with spoken languages, said Julie A. Hochgesang, a Deaf linguist at Gallaudet University who maintains an ASL sign bank that documents variations in ASL.

Today, with ASL on the upswing, young people might be learning it from Chrissy Marshall, 22, a deaf TikTok influencer living in the Los Angeles area. ASL has its own rules of grammar, but in her videos, she sometimes adapts her signs to more closely follow the English rules that her viewers might know better.

Those kinds of changes don’t sit well with everyone. MJ Bienvenu, 69, of Austin, Texas, quit an 87,000-member ASL Facebook group because she said too many people were using newly invented signs that didn’t fit the language’s existing guidelines.

“Many people were inventing signs that didn’t make sense,” said Dr. Bienvenu, who is a retired Deaf studies professor. “I feel like many people don’t realize that they bastardize ASL, and it harms more than it helps.” […]

Black American Sign Language developed separately from ASL because of segregation in deaf schools. Its evolution has been studied less than that of ASL, and the two can differ considerably, with variations based on regional and cultural norms.

BASL scholars say it is more similar to early American Sign Language than it is to the latest iteration. For example, BASL users tend to use more two-handed signs and a larger space.

Ms. Jackson-Woodard, 37, is a Deaf interpreter living in the Washington, D.C., area. She can observe some of the differences between ASL and forms of BASL in her own family, which includes multiple Deaf generations.

“He signs ‘ice cream’ the way he does,” she said of her grandfather, “because back then, he couldn’t afford a cone, so he ate ice cream in a bowl. He’d combine ice cream and milk in a bowl to make creamy ice cream.”

Ms. Jackson-Woodard switches among different BASL signs depending on whether she is chatting with her grandfather, her parents or her children, and does the same in ASL or BASL, depending on the audience she is interpreting for.

“I think it’s important to keep the old signs,” she said, “because maybe one day you’ll use it again.” […]

Although the differences can sometimes lead to tension, ASL linguists emphasize that there is no right or wrong choice for a sign — because language is shaped by those who use it.

The longer and more widely a sign is used, the more standardized it becomes, and ASL is still a fairly young, dynamic language that has overcome decades of stigma. The best way to figure out which words to use, Dr. Hochgesang said, is to connect with deaf communities.

“Signs themselves are nothing without the people using them,” she said.

There are many more examples at the link; one reason the piece is so knowledgeable:

Amanda Morris is a child of deaf adults who uses hearing aids and learned ASL at home. She conducted many of the interviews for this story in sign language.

It’s also a good example of the kind of interactive story the Times has been publishing lately, with brief video clips illustrating the signs. As for Dr. Bienvenu, the retired professor who says “I feel like many people don’t realize that they bastardize ASL, and it harms more than it helps,” I don’t know enough to know whether that’s standard peevery or a reasonable objection.


  1. Black American Sign Language developed separately from ASL because of segregation in deaf schools. IIRC, it was a combo of segregated schooling and oralism not taking hold in schools for Black D/deaf children.

  2. Interesting, thanks for the additional info. (Also, I hadn’t been familiar with the <q> tag.)

  3. To the extent that, “ASL has its own rules of grammar,” I wonder how difficult it is to quote ASL speakers directly by translating their statements sign-by-sign into English. More generally, this opens the question of what a direct quote from an ASL user* is exactly.

    * Normally, I would just use “ASL speaker” here, but the fact that the communications are not spoken is precisely what is at issue with the question.

  4. As for Dr. Bienvenu, the retired professor who says “I feel like many people don’t realize that they bastardize ASL, and it harms more than it helps,” I don’t know enough to know whether that’s standard peevery or a reasonable objection.

    I agree. It would be really interesting to learn what, in particular, the negative ramifications of the language change are. I don’t doubt there are some, but, as an ethnographer, I want specifics. For whom? In what contexts? What are the politics of all this?

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Sign languages, now I think of it, are actually a good illustration of the fact that even your actual L1 – your “native language” – can be something that you didn’t acquire from your parents: indeed, here that is the norm, not the exception. (A better example than Ghanaian English or mediaeval Hebrew: proves the point even more clearly.)

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder how much of a role the small minority who did learn their language from their parents play in intergenerational transmission overall, and how much is a kind of re-creation anew by each generation? (A sort of perpetual recreolisation.) It must be at least a rather different dynamic from the great majority of spoken languages. (I would guess that whole theses have actually been written on this already.)

    Mind you, it would only be a real issue if large-scale imperfect acquisition came into the picture, which seems unlikely for a child acquiring her first actual language (from whatever source.) And AFAIK hearing children who have always communicated with their Deaf parents by sign use spoken language just like other hearing children. Nothing prevents a child from learning two languages perfectly.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    “ASL has its own rules of grammar, but in her videos, she [“a deaf TikTok influencer living in the Los Angeles area”] sometimes adapts her signs to more closely follow the English rules that her viewers might know better.”

    That’s the other thing: leaving aside this particular person’s assumed viewers, the average “L1” ASL user probably also has at least close to average L1 fluency in written American English, which creates I guess a disglossia-like situation? Is there even a standardized written transcription for ASL that’s widely used/understood? If someone were planning to give a “speech” from a prepared script in ASL, what would that script look like, or would it just be written out in English?

  8. David Eddyshaw says
  9. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E.: Thanks, interesting although needs to be discounted a bit by (a) being written with an advocacy-piece kind of vibe; and (b) being written by someone who thinks “Skinner (1957)” is a good citation for talking about human language in general. I would be interested in any info re what the optimistic “many” (for real-world adaptation of the second of the systems described) currently works out to in terms of actual percentage of the ASL-fluent who are also fluent in that writing system.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    The Stokoe system is the one I’d actually heard of.

    WP says its use is “mainly restricted to linguists and academics.” I think its main interest is in showing that the thing is actually possible.

    More here:

    Structurally, ASL is pretty different from English. Naming signs in order (and they can be simultaneous) wouldn’t capture it, and the signs can’t be put into a one-to-one relationship with English words in a sentence.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    British Sign Language (which is not related to ASL) is said to be OSV:

  12. what a direct quote from an ASL user is exactly.

    following on from DE:

    i’ve seen (in a bilingual-theater context – iirc, an article on a wonderful english/ASL production of The Tempest from the 1990s) some sign-by-sign ASL transcription/translation, and it is at least as far from english as word-by-word transcription/translation from any other unrelated language (something sinitic, say, or a mayan language).

    “direct” quotes given originally in ASL are translations – almost always unattributed, so it’s very hard to know whether they’ve been checked with the source for accuracy, or even provided by an interpreter the source trusts.

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