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Saturday, May 05, 2007

ASL is not "Broken English"! (not even close!)

ASL is not "broken English." It is true that PSE is more like "broken English," because that's what happens in a pidginization process.

In a situation where the pidginization process occurs, there is linguistic contact between people who don't know each other's language, and they just know bits and pieces of the other language.

There is a stark contrast between ASL and PSE. ASL uses all the rich capabilities of three-dimensional space and the rules of grammar characteristic of a visual (signed) language. There is no deficiency there. It is a full-standing and beautiful linguistic phenomenon on its own. Most of its vocabulary is non-English based and evolved on its own, independently of English.

All languages in the world are interrelated and vocabulary words are borrowed from one to the other. When a word is borrowed from one language into another, it becomes re-lexicalized into that new language and no longer belongs to the former language where it came from.

Centuries ago, an educated person who was fluent in Latin might view Spanish, French, or Italian as being "broken Latin"---especially in a situation where almost all educated people used the Latin language as the lingua franca of educated discourse.

In those days, the "vulgar" languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.) were full languages in their own right, but they were being underused. The capability was there. There was nothing wrong with the Spanish, French, or Italian languages.

The temptation in those days would be to view Spanish, French and Italian as being deficient, due to their under utilization and the fact that educated people used Latin. But that would be a very wrong view and would be an example of linguistic chauvinism.

American Sign Language is a real and very beautiful language. There is nothing about ASL that resembles broken English. That mistaken view only occurs when people confuse PSE with ASL. The two are not the same. It was a mistaken view which was spread in the 20th Century in America, during a time when nativism and xenophobia occurred as a reaction to the large influx of immigrants into our country.

In the 1800's, Deaf people in America used ASL, but they didn't call it ASL. They called it "The Natural Language of Signs." They knew it was beautiful and something real in its own right. They even used the term "Language" in describing it. We even have films made between 1910 and 1920 showing people signing who were alive in those days, including Edward Miner Gallaudet himself, using the same type of sign language on camera that was used in the 1800's and that was called the "Natural Language of Signs." So the fact that they were using ASL in the 1800's in beyond dispute. It was a bona fide language back then, just as it is now.

The Conference of Milan of 1880 took place and in the early 1900's oralists took over control of deaf education in America. Hearing teachers of the deaf who had no familiarity with ASL would confuse PSE with ASL.

People looked at PSE and all they could see was broken English. But they were not looking at ASL, i.e., the real "Natural Language of Signs." They were looking at PSE, and so they had the wrong view that all sign language was "broken English." Even many deaf people themselves became confused about the issue.

Centuries ago, some writers who lived in Italy used the phrase the "new, sweet style" to refer to what we call "the Italian language" today. This is similar to the way ASL did not have a name in the 1800's and was called "The Natural Language of Signs."


The beginnings of Italian literature can be traced to the 13th century. The Italian language, one of the
Romance languages, has its origins in Latin as spoken during the later centuries of the Roman Empire. During the late 13th and early 14th centuries a group of poets and other writers began to use the “new, sweet style,” which they called the language they wrote in to distinguish it from Latin. Latin continued to be used by the church, the government, and business.

The three leading figures of the first flowering of Italian literature were Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio. Dante was the first to write in the Italian vernacular, and his symbolic poem, the
Divine Comedy, bridges the gap between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Petrarch was the first great lyric poet to use the Italian language. Boccaccio was the first to write what are now called short stories.


So we see that the Italian language is not "Broken Latin." Similarly, American Sign Language is definitely not "Broken English."

There is no resemblance whatsoever between ASL and broken English. Such a view represents a profound misunderstanding. It's a wrong view which leads to the oppression of deaf people and the development of incorrect and ineffective educational theories.

Now, with a proper view of the nature of ASL, Deaf people, along with hearing allies, can finally promote a better bilingual-bicultural education system. In fact, this was the educational system already being used in the 1800's at Gallaudet and in the residential schools that were being set up all over the United States, however they lacked the terminology and the full linguistic understanding of the situation and they did not call it "bilingual-bicultural," but that's what it was.

The situation is very similar to the situation where students in Italy centuries ago were taught in the "new, sweet style," which was actually the Italian language. Except in that situation, Latin was the parent language of Italian. Italian actually evolved directly from Latin over time, until it developed its own grammar which was distinct from Latin.

In the situation in America, ASL did not evolve from the English language, and ASL is in no way, shape, or form derived from English. ASL and English are actually very different languages, although some borrowing of vocabulary has occurred, which is typical of any language-contact situation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

PSE is a misnomer for Signed English.


Yes, there is confusion with the term "PSE" also. That's why we used the term "pidginization process" (above).

"Pidgin Sign English" or "PSE" was a term invented by James Woodward in the early 1970's. He actually jumped the gun and shouldn't have used that term, because there actually is no pidgin language.

Instead, there is only a "pidginization-like process" which is taking place. The process has never led to the creation of any pidgin language which was a linguistic entity unto itself--or with a "life of its own," which is characteristic of other pidgin languages (which often themselves develop into more complex languages called "creoles.")

What happens in these language contact situations involving ASL and English should probably not even be called a "pidginization process," but perhaps should be called something like a "modalization process," because ASL occurs in the visual-gestural mode, while English occurs in the aural-oral mode.

Some people are under the mistaken impression that it's possible to sign ASL while speaking English at the same time, but that is quite impossible and would be like someone speaking fluent Russian orally while simultaneously writing fluent Swahili with pen and paper.

Due to the impossibility of signing ASL and speaking English at the same time, people who want to sign while they are speaking English will simply be conveying a type of "telegraphic English" on their hands, using signs borrowed from ASL. Usually this is called "Simultaneous Communication" (as you already know, Jean) or "SimCom".

SimCom is a lousy way of communicating, but is sometimes used as a compromise in language contact situations where someone needs to find a way to try to communicate with both deaf people and hearing people at the same time.

Sometimes late-deafened adults are comfortable using SimCom with each other, but that's a different situation, too, because they are really simply using borrowed signs to aid in lip reading and using their residual hearing. That's a lot better than trying to read lips without signs, but it's still not an ideal form of communication.

Compromise forms of communication like SimCom should not be considered suitable for use by teachers in school classrooms or university classrooms for deaf students, because deaf students are visually oriented beings. The hearing teacher will end up listening to his/her own voice and the signs on the hands will end up being more and more "telegraphic," (fewer and fewer signs being used compared to the words spoken on the lips) to the point where the teacher loses the students.

Also, the confusing telegraphic signs on the hands will only serve as a bad grammatical example and will actually serve as a stumbling block for younger deaf students who are still learning English grammar. It's better for them to learn English by reading and writing, not by watching or using signed English.

It's better for a teacher to use real American Sign Language with deaf students, and save English for reading and writing. This reduces linguistic confusion and enables the deaf students to excel in acquiring better knowledge of English grammar.

May 5, 2007 at 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good e-article on the so-called Broken English myth among deaf signers.

The linguists call Pidgin Sign English nowaday as the "Language Contact". Please keep in mind. Thanks.

Robert L. Mason (RLM)


Yes, the term "Pidgin Sign English" was never an accurate term and should not have been invented. James Woodward made a mistake, because those were the early days of sign language research and things were not analyzed thoroughly and properly.

Most people who use the abbreviation "PSE" are not thinking of pidgin languages, they are thinking of the language contact situation (mixing ASL and English together, etc.) so the abbreviation "PSE" somehow became associated with the phenomenon of language mixing and lost the association with Woodward's theory.

The problem is the it takes a long time for the public to be educated. We need to throw out the abbreviation "PSE." The more accurate abbreviation, "SSS", for "Sign Supported Speech," is not well known.

May 6, 2007 at 2:35 PM  

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