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Yes, Sign Language Has Accents

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American Sign Language isn't a translation of English. It's a language with its own grammar and idioms. Sign language speakers also have their own accents. Learn how this language, like every other, undergoes regionalization and shifts in tone.

To understand how sign language speakers have accents, we have to realize what causes accents. Accents spring up when an isolated group of speakers exaggerate their shared language over time. Eventually, their exaggeration causes idiosyncrasies that allow them to identify outsiders, and allow outsiders to identify them. This isn't deliberate, of course, but it happens everywhere, including in sign language.


This isolation isn't just one of place. Age groups, ethnic groups, and anyone who has a subculture can develop an accent. Sign language speakers have accents that depend on their age, their ethnicity, and whether or not they're hearing or deaf.

Sometimes it's as simple as certain signs being consistently different. These signs allow people to identify different regional variations in language. It's like the way we know that someone who says, "Don't take your underwear off in the elevator anymore — they have cameras, you moron," is American, and someone who says, "Don't take your pants off in the lift — they have cameras, you daft git," is British. Signs for "picnic," for some reason, appear to vary widely. Different signing communities have different nicknames for public figures. (One of Bill Clinton's sign language nicknames is the undoing of a zipper.) It seems that white people and black people generally have different signs for "boss," "school," and "flirt."


There are also variations in sign language speed. New Yorkers are notorious fast-talkers, while Ohioans are calm and relaxed. New Yorkers also curse more. People from the southern United States tend to touch their lower face and chest a lot when they sign, and that has become a distinctive regional accent. When people learn a new sign language, as there are 130 distinct sign languages worldwide, they carry an accent with them. One signer, learning sign language in Japan, was told that people loved the way they signed, using extended fingers during words usually expressed with a closed fist. As with any other language, people find foreign accents hot.

Sign languages speakers even find ways to convey auditory regional accents. A clipped Yankee will be interpreted with clipped signs, while a southern drawl will evoke (if the signer is sufficiently skilled) more drawn-out signs.

It's tempting to think of accents as decorative. They do add richness and character to language. But they're also a form of information. They tell us where a person is from and what community they belong to. People will always find ways to transmit that information.


Second Image: Nina Matthews.

[Via Sign Language is Not Just About the Hands, NY Accent in Sign Language, Linguistics of American Sign Language, Sign Language Users Have Accents, Accents in Sign Language]