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Black American Sign Language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Black American Sign Language
A series of four hands fingerspelling "B-A-S-L"
Fingerspelling of "BASL"
Native toUnited States
RegionNorth America
French Sign–based (possibly a creole)
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Black American Sign Language (BASL) or Black Sign Variation (BSV) is a dialect of American Sign Language (ASL)[1] used most commonly by deaf African Americans in the United States. The divergence from ASL was influenced largely by the segregation of schools in the American South. Like other schools at the time, schools for the deaf were segregated based upon race, creating two language communities among deaf signers: White deaf signers at White schools and Black deaf signers at Black schools. Today, BASL is still used by signers in the South despite public schools having been legally desegregated since 1954.

Linguistically, BASL differs from other varieties of ASL in its phonology, syntax, and vocabulary. BASL tends to have a larger signing space, meaning that some signs are produced further away from the body than in other dialects. Signers of BASL also tend to prefer two-handed variants of signs, while signers of ASL tend to prefer one-handed variants. Some signs are different in BASL as well, with some borrowings from African American English.

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When people see sign language for the first time, they assume that the sign language is universal. But then they find out that it isn’t the case so that surprises them. Every country has its own sign language. Each of those languages has variation. I will give you an example to help you understand the meaning of variation. ASL has variation of signs. The signs for EARLY can be these: an open-8 handshape moving backward or forward over a weak hand; an open-8 handshape moving away from the nose; or a 3-handshape moving away from the forehead. Those signs are variants of EARLY. Another example is BIRTHDAY that has many variants. We have this sign, BORN^DAY, that appears as two different variants; the open-8 handshape moving from the chin to the cheek; 4-handshape brushing down on the cheek; and tugging on the ear. Those are some variants of BIRTHDAY. All of them are part of ASL and they are accepted by the Deaf community in U.S. So, they are viewed as part of variation. How variation comes about is based on two factors: social factor and geographical factor. The examples of social factors are: age, gender, race, and socio-economic that ranges from working class to upper class. Those are social factors. A geographical factor is related to where people live. It also includes communities that are isolated from one another. There is something that separates the communities. For example, a river, a mountain, or a border that prevents the interaction between the two communities. Social and geographical reasons are the likely factors to explain the lack of interaction between the communities. One aspect of ASL variation I would like to discuss is Black ASL. Whenever Black Deaf people get together, their signing is noticeably different to other people. The signs are different. The expressions are different. The movements are different. There are outside comments about Black Deaf signing expressions. However, all of these are anecdotal reports from regular people. As for research on Black ASL, there aren’t many studies that identify the different forms of Black ASL. That’s one reason why my research team started our study to identify what makes that ASL variant “Black ASL.” The people who did the study on Black ASL were Ceil Lucas, Carolyn McCaskill, Joseph Hill (which is me), and Robert Bayley. The first three of us were from Gallaudet University and Dr. Bayley was from the University of California – Davis. We met and discussed about the research questions about Black ASL: 1) What happened in the history that caused Black ASL to appear? This question is related to social and geographical factors; and 2) What are the linguistic features that make an ASL variant “Black ASL”? The features include facial expressions, signs, number of hands, handshapes, movements, and signing space. The identification of these features can explain why one ASL variant is different from other ASL variants. That is the other question. For the Black ASL research, we focused on southern U.S. states as our research sites because there was the history of racial segregation in the South. Schools for the deaf were also segregated with black and white children not being allowed in contact with each other. That’s the basis for the development of Black ASL that started with Black Deaf children. The six states that we did our study on were Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. In each state, we recruited two groups of participants: people over the age of 55 in the older group and people under 35 in the younger group. The older group went to segregated schools for the deaf and the younger group was educated in racially mixed settings. Also, we had a question whether the older group’s signing with their own facial expressions and signs were still used by the younger group. It was necessary to have those two groups to answer our questions. When we had our older and younger groups in each states, we started analyzing the linguistic features of Black ASL as follows. Instead of covering all features of Black ASL, I will discuss some of them. One feature I want to start off with is handedness, which means the number of hands in signs. For example, two 5-handshapes for DEER or one 5-handshape; 2 B-handshapes for HAVE or one B-handshape; and 2 B-handshapes for DON’T-KNOW or one B-handshape. Two handed signs are considered to be the standard signs, also more conservative. Now the question is how two groups are different or similar: the Black Deaf Signers and the White Deaf signers? Black Deaf signers tend to use two-handed signs more often than White Deaf signers who use one-handed signs more. It seems that Black Deaf signers follow more standard signs with two hands. Another feature is location of signs which can be made on the forehead or someplace lower. For example, the sign TEACH on the forehead or in the lowered location; the sign KNOW on the forehead or lowered; and the sign FOR on the side of forehead or lowered. The standard forms of the signs are normally made on the forehead. When we compared the signing data of Black Deaf groups and White Deaf groups, we found that Black Deaf signers preferred to use the higher location than did the White Deaf signers. It appeared that Black Deaf signers used the more standard form of the signs. The next feature to discuss is the size of signing space. The normal size of signing space is from the top of the head to the waist and from one shoulder to another. When we looked at the signing space used by Black and White Deaf signers, we noticed that Black Deaf signers used a larger space. We looked at the group of older Black Deaf signers and asked about their old signs. They showed us many different signs. For example in North Carolina, the sign for SCIENCE is an I-handshape jumping between the fingers of the other hand. The sign for BOSS is signed like CARTOON with the C handshape. The sign for TOWEL is signed like POOR on the elbow. The sign for BATHROOM is signed like HEART with the open-8 handshape on the chest. The signs in Texas, for example, IMPORTANT is signed with the I-handshape that thumps down on the other hand and bounces back; CHICKEN is signed like DIAPER on the waist; and BATHROOM is signed with the W-handshape brushing in front of the shoulder. In Virginia, PREGNANT is signed like STUCK with the V-handshape on the neck; and BIRTHDAY is signed with two 4-handshapes brushing downward on the cheeks. Those signs are from Virginia. We interviewed our young black participants with our thinking about the technology in their lives with social media, internet access, and captioning, any way they had access to words that contributed to their learning. Also, they interacted with black hearing people and observed how words and phrases were used and how those were incorporated in Black ASL. When I asked them for the examples of particular words and phrases incorporated in Black ASL, they gave us a few examples. One is “my bad” with the S-handshape tapping on the shoulder. Another one is “girl, please” which is signed GIRL PLEASE with this facial expression. It is similar to the common ASL sign, ANNOY. The other sign is the F-handshape signed like PREACH. This means, “that’s tight.” One phrase is this, I KNOW THAT’S RIGHT, which means “I agree with you on that.” The other phrase “stop trippin’” is signed TRIP (from the head) and FINISH. The participants gave us good examples of the signs. We, the research team, found a lot about Black ASL. We have rich data of it, but still it is not enough. There are many areas of Black ASL that are uncovered and we hope that someone out there will find more things about Black ASL. This research is just the first step.



Like many educational institutions for hearing children during the 1800s and early 1900s, schools for deaf children were segregated based on race.[2] The first school for the deaf in the United States, the American School for the Deaf (ASD), was founded in 1817 but did not admit any Black students until 1952. Of the schools for the deaf that were founded, few admitted students of color.[3] Seeing a lack of educational opportunities for Black deaf children, Platt Skinner founded the Skinner School for the Colored Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in 1856 in Niagara Falls, New York. Skinner described his school as "the first effort of its kind in the country ... We receive and instruct those and only those who are refused admission to all other institutions and are despised on account of their color."[4][5] The school moved to Trenton, New Jersey, in 1860. After it closed in 1866,[6][7] no Northern state created an institution for Black deaf children. Even after these states outlawed segregation by 1900, integration was sparse, as some institutions allowed Black students and others did not.[8][9]

After the foundation and success of the American School for the Deaf, many other institutions for the deaf were founded throughout the country. Since schools, particularly in the South, were segregated, many Southern states created separate schools or departments for Black deaf children. The first school established for Black deaf children below the Mason–Dixon line opened in the District of Columbia in 1857; it remained segregated until 1958. The last Southern state to create an institution for Black deaf children was Louisiana in 1938. Black deaf children became a language community isolated from White deaf children, with different means of language socialization, allowing for different dialects to develop. Because the education of White children was privileged over that of Black children, oralism—the prominent pedagogical method of the time—was not as strictly applied to the Black deaf students. Oralist methods often forbade the use of sign language, so Black deaf students had more opportunities to use ASL than did their White peers. Despite the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, integration was slow to come. Schools for the deaf were no exception: the last desegregated in 1978, 24 years after the decision.[10][11]

As schools began to integrate, students and teachers noticed differences in the way Black students and White students signed. Carolyn McCaskill, now professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, recalls the challenge of understanding the dialect of ASL used by her White principal and teachers after her segregated school of her youth integrated: "When I began attending the school, I did not understand the teacher and she did not understand me because we used different signs."[12] Carl G. Croneberg was the first to discuss differences between BASL and White ASL in his appendices of the 1965 version of the Dictionary of American Sign Language. Work has continued on BASL since then.[13][14]

As deaf education and sign language research continued to evolve, so did the perception of ASL. With the publication of the Dictionary of American Sign Language, ASL began to be recognized as a legitimate language. The greater acceptance of ASL as a language led to standardization and the development of a prestige dialect, which was based upon the signs used at Gallaudet University.[15] Despite this standardization, ASL has regional, distinct accents similar to those of spoken languages.[16] Dialects that are different from the standard one, and especially those spoken by marginalized groups, are often stigmatized.[17] As a non-standard dialect, BASL is stigmatized by signers and considered to be inferior to prestige dialects of ASL.[18] This difference in prestige has led BASL speakers to code switch to a prestige dialect when speaking with different groups of people, despite BASL being mutually intelligible with other dialects of ASL.[19]

A study of Southern Black signers found that when compared to older signers who attended segregated schools, younger black ASL signers express more positive attitudes toward the dialect. Older signers who attended lower quality schools due to the inequality of "separate but equal" clauses believed that white signing is higher quality because it appears to be more complicated. However, this is likely because the lack of ASL-skilled teachers in the black schools at the time; there is no evidence that white signing is more official or complex than Black ASL. Black signs are typically more like the "standard" signs taught in schools and textbooks. Black signing is also associated with rhythm and expression.[20]

Table of states with black deaf schools[21]
State White school


Black school

or department established

Washington, D.C. 1857 1857 (dept.) 1958
North Carolina 1845 1868–1869 1967
Maryland 1868 1872 1956
Georgia 1846 1882 1965
Tennessee 1845 1881 (dept.) 1965
Mississippi 1854 1882 (dept.) 1965
South Carolina 1849 1883 (dept.) 1966
Kentucky 1823 1884 (dept.) 1954–1960
Florida 1885 1885 1965
Texas 1857 1887 1965
Arkansas 1850/1867 1867 1967
Alabama 1858 1868 1968
Missouri 1861 1888 (dept.) 1954
Virginia 1839 1909 1965
Oklahoma 1898 1909 (dept.) 1962
Kansas 1861 1888 (dept.) 1954
Louisiana 1852 1938 1978
West Virginia 1870 1926 1956


Silhouette of a man standing with a gray translucent box superimposed over his torso and face
The gray box represents the typical signing space of ASL. Signers of BASL are more likely to produce signs outside of this area than other signers.[22]

When asked, many signers in the South gave anecdotal accounts of differences between the signing of Black and White signers. These differences turned out to be aspects of the differing phonology of BASL. Among these accounts were claims that Black signers had a larger signing space and used more two-handed signs. Investigation into these anecdotes has found correlations.[23]

When compared, Black signers were more likely than were White signers to produce signs outside of the typical signing space and to use two-handed signs.[22][24] Adverbs are most likely to use a larger signing space. Less marked forms, such as pronouns, determiners, plain verbs, and nouns, tend to be less likely to be produced outside the typical signing space.[22][25] The selection of two-handed signs over one-handed signs was found to have systematic constraints on their production. When the sign could be produced with one or two hands, Black signers often produced the variant that matched the handedness of the following sign; if the following sign was two-handed, they were more likely to produce a two-handed variant, while if the following sign was one-handed, they were more likely to produce the one-handed variant. The use of innovative one-handed forms, though, even in environments which favored them, did not exceed 50 percent.[26]

BASL signers further tend to favor lowered variants of side-of-forehead signs resulting in contact at the cheek. The sign KNOW is usually produced by placing the fingers of a flat hand on the temple, but when lowered the fingers make contact at the cheek.[27][28] Early research showed that BASL signers used these lowered forms at a rate of 53 percent, with grammatical category being the strongest constraint.[29] Other conditioning environments for lowered signs depend on preceding location; for instance, signs produced in front of the body lead to lowered sign variants, while signs produced at the head cause signers to favor non-lowered forms.[30]


Unlike ASL, BASL allows for the frequent use of syntactic repetition. In a study conducted by McCaskill, of 26 signers (13 Black and 13 White), Black signers had 57 instances of repetition compared to 19 from White signers, and of those 19 instances, 18 were made by a single signer. The use of repetition by BASL signers is considered to be pragmatic rather than as a way to clarify meaning.[31]

A study in 2004 by Melanie Metzger and Susan Mather found that Black male signers used constructed action, with or without constructed dialogue, more often than White signers, but never used constructed dialogue by itself.[32] These results were not reproduced in a later study into constructed action and constructed dialogue by McCaskill, which found that Black signers not only used constructed dialogue, but did so more frequently than white signers.[33]

Lexical variation

Lexical variation between BASL and other dialects of ASL was first noted in the Dictionary of American Sign Language.[14] In a later study of 34 lexical signs, Black signers were found to have 28 signs that White signers did not know.[34] Older signers are more likely to use variant signs than younger signers. Most of these signs, having been developed in segregated schools for the Black Deaf, refer to everyday life. Younger signers of BASL are less likely to use these variants, but when asked about them are aware that older signers have and use these innovative signs.[35]

Borrowing from African-American Vernacular English

Person in orange shirt with hand in front of him with index and middle fingers crooked creating a "bent - v" shape
The bent-v handshape used in the sign STOP TRIPPING

A body of work has arisen looking at the similarities between Black American Sign Language and African-American English (AAVE), since both are language varieties marked by their use in African-American communities. In 1998 John Lewis investigated the incorporation of aspects of AAVE into BASL. He reported that, during narrative storytelling by a Black signer, there were "Ebonic shifts" marked by shifts in posture and rhythmicity and by incorporating side-to-side head movement. He concluded that this "songified" quality was related to the style of AAE.[36] This finding was not reproduced by McCaskill, which she attributes to the nature of the speech acts: Lewis analyzed a narrative event while McCaskill used natural or elicited data.[37] Lexical borrowing has been seen in BASL signers under age 3, which is likely due to the advances in mass media—younger signers would have more contact with AAE through movies, television, and the Internet.[38]

When asked about distinctive features of their signing, Black Deaf signers tended to identify a number of idioms borrowed from AAVE.[39] Some were literal translations, such as I FEEL YOU or GIRL PLEASE, which are signed the standard way but have meanings different from their literal interpretation.[40][41] Other loan words modified existing signs, such as STOP TRIPPING, which took the bent-v handshape of TRIP and moved it up to the head to indicate a new meaning of "stop imagining things".[42]

See also


  1. ^ Ethnologue 2015, American Sign Language
  2. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 8
  3. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 16–17
  4. ^ Skinner 1859
  5. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p.17
  6. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p.17
  7. ^ Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area, n.d.
  8. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 17–18
  9. ^ Douglas 2005, p. 83
  10. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 19–20
  11. ^ Douglas 2005
  12. ^ McCaskill 2014
  13. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 11
  14. ^ a b Stokoe 1965, pp. 313–19
  15. ^ Hill 2015, pp. 153–155
  16. ^ Walker 1987, p. 31
  17. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 64
  18. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 72
  19. ^ Lewis, et al. 1995
  20. ^ Bayley, Robert; Hill, Joseph C.; McCaskill, Carolyn; Lucas, Ceil (November 1, 2017). "Attitudes towards Black American Sign Language". Retrieved 2019-01-08.
  21. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 20
  22. ^ a b c McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 104–105
  23. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 75
  24. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 86
  25. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 101
  26. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 82–86
  27. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 86–87
  28. ^ Lifeprint, n.d. KNOW
  29. ^ Lucas, et al. 2002
  30. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, pp. 92–97
  31. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 116
  32. ^ Metzger and Mathers 2004
  33. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 122
  34. ^ Lucas and McCaskill 2014, p. 41
  35. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 150
  36. ^ Lewis, et al. 1998
  37. ^ McCaskill, et al. 2011, p. 133
  38. ^ Lucas, et al. 2015
  39. ^ Solomon 2010, p. 10
  40. ^ Solomon 2010, p. 10
  41. ^ Lucas, et al. 2015, Figure 3. p. 165
  42. ^ Lucas, et al. 2015, p. 163


  • Douglas, Davison. 2005. Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle over Northern School Segregation, 1865–1954. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-60783-4.
  • Hill, Joseph. 2015. Language attitudes in Deaf communities. Sociolinguistics and Deaf Communities ed. by Adam Schembri, and Ceil Lucas, 146–174. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. ISBN 978-1-107-66386-2.
  • Lewis, John. 1998. Ebonics in American Sign Language: stylistic variation in African American signers. Deaf Studies V: Towards 2000: Unity and Diversity ed. by C. Carroll. Washington, D.C.: College for Continuing Education, Gallaudet University. ISBN 978-1-893891-09-8.
  • Lewis, John; Carrie Palmer, and Leandra Williams. 1995. Existence of and attitudes towards Black variations of sign language. Communication Forum 4. 17–48.
  • Lucas, Ceil; Robert Bayley; Carolyn McCaskill, and Joseph Hill. 2015. The intersection of African American English and Black American Sign Language. International Journal of Bilingualism 19. 156–168.
  • Lucas, Ceil; Robert Bayley; Mary Rose, and Alyssa Wulf. 2002. Location variation in American Sign Language. Sign Language Studies 2. 407–440.
  • Lucas, Ceil; Robert Bayley, and Clayton Valli. 2001. Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. ISBN 978-1-56368-113-4.
  • Lucas, Ceil, and Carolyn McCaskill. 2014. American Sign Language. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture ed. by Michael Montgomery, and Ellen Johnson, 40–42. 5; Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-5806-6.
  • McCaskill, Carolyn. 2014. Black ASL. Accessed 21 March 2015. Video. In ASL with English captions
  • McCaskill, Carolyn; Ceil Lucas; Robert Bayley, and Joseph Hill. 2011. The Hidden Treasure of Black Asl: Its History and Structure. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. ISBN 978-1-56368-489-0.
  • Metzger, Melanie, and Susan Mather. 2004. Constructed Dialogue and Constructed Action in Conversational Narratives in ASL. cited in Lucas, et al. 2002
  • Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area. n.d. Site of Dr. P.H. Skinner's and Jarusha Skinner's School for Colored Deaf, Dumb and Blind Children. Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area. Accessed 21 November 2015. Web.
  • SIL International. 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, ed. by M. Paul Lewis, Gary Simons, and Charles Fennig. 18; Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Web.
  • Skinner, Platt. 1859. The Mute and the Deaf. Niagara City, NY.
  • Solomon, Andrea. 2010. Cultural and Sociolinguistic Features of the Black Deaf Community. Carnegie Mellon. Accessed 5 December 2015. Honors Thesis.
  • Stokoe, William; Dorothy Casterline, and Carl Croneberg. 1965. Appendix D: sign language and dialects. A Dictionary of American Sign Language. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok. ISBN 978-0-932130-01-3.
  • Vicars, William. n.d. ASL University. Lifeprint. Accessed 5 December 2015.
  • Walker, Lou Ann. 1987. A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-091425-7.

This page was last edited on 8 January 2019, at 04:40
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