Summary of “Variation in Sign Language” by Barbara LeMaster and Leila Monaghan

In the chapter “Variation in Sign Language” by Barbara LeMaster and Leila Monaghan, the authors argue how sign language is not universal. Sign language differs based on many different factors. Sign language is not universal because “Geographical, national, and social boundaries can separate people by the sign languages they use” (142). There are other variations that cause sign language to not be universal as well. The authors mention how families use ‘home signs’ which are created by the families of those who are deaf. Many children who are born deaf are usually born into families that are not deaf, so being first time learners, parents will adapt their own home signs that they can use to communicate with their child. These home signs are found everywhere and are not limited to just one city or country. They are unique.

Another variation on sign language consists of specific languages according to the region, age, sex/gender, and register. The authors include information on how younger women used sign to discuss with others about being on their periods. They did not want the older adults to know what they were discussing in sign. This age variation “associated with youthfulness” (149) allows for younger people to communicate with one another in a way that that only people their age can understand. In addition to age variations there are also regional variations on sign. This chapter discusses how sign language is not an equivalent language to spoke language, it contains its own grammar. For instance, in the United States, England, and the Republic of Ireland are different from one another. The authors remark that sign language does not develop in relation to spoken language. However, they do “have their own complex morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantic rules” (143). It would be nearly impossible for sign language to be universal if each country contains their own sign rules in accordance to those who use it. The authors demonstrate how the word “birthday” is signed different in several states in America. There are even sign variations in relation to gender. The text illustrates how the sign for “night” was portrayed differently for men and women signers. Not only this, but it also depends on when the person was born. Sign differs by age because sign changes constantly over time. Older individuals who use sign for common everyday words will not be the same sign used by modern individuals. Many signs that were done with two hands have become one-handed signs.

With variations in sign, the authors argue that it would be impossible for sign language to be universal. There are ways in which deaf people in certain countries can communicate with deaf people of other countries. There may not be an international sign language, yet there is the American Sign Language (ASL). ASL heavily influences many countries that adapt it. This is what made the ASL present in countries that are not America. If you’re interested in witnessing how deaf individuals use sign language here is a video by Rikki Poynter, a deaf blogger, who explains the different sign languages and why sign is not universal. This video is significant because it is done by someone in the deaf community. There are subtitles attached for those who cannot understand sign language.

LeMaster, B and L Monaghan. (2004). “Variation in Sign Language.” In A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Pp. 141-165. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

One thought on “Summary of “Variation in Sign Language” by Barbara LeMaster and Leila Monaghan

  1. Your summary identifies one of the arguments in the text, and you offer several details in terms of evidence of variation. But you don’t mention several of the other supporting points made by the authors (e.g. about relationship to written language, difference between signed and spoken language, and Deaf identity). Your summary would be improved by incorporating the points made in each of the chapter’s sub-sections.

    You provide a good review of several key pieces of evidence the authors use. It would help your summary in terms of clarity to be more explicit about how this evidence is used to prove the author’s larger arguments about variation among sign usage, but also about the similarities and differences between sign, spoken, and written language.

    While you suggest why sign language is an important topic of study, your summary doesn’t give the reader a good sense of why the authors say it’s relevant. They make several points in their conclusion about the anthropological study of sign language, for example as a way to study change in language and culture over time.

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