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

In “Variation in Sign Language” written by Barbara LeMaster and Leila Monaghan , the authors discuss sign language which is a signed language communicated through the use of one’s hands, face and body (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). It is used and understood through the sense of seeing instead of speech which is why sign language is commonly used among deaf individuals (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). The authors also discuss the different kinds of variations relating to sign language that’s based on region, age, gender, ethnicity, and social setting (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004).  

          The authors argue that there are variations within specific sign languages according to characteristics such as region, age, sex/gender, and register (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). This argument was supported with evidence such as the fact that slang can mark an individual’s age which is determined by whether they’re used or used appropriately (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). For example, a couple years ago, the term I have reason, was used by young women as a safe way to speak about their period in front of adults usually in the presence of teachers who weren’t supposed to know the sign because of their age (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). This reminds me of how similar and true this is for spoken language as well because from my experience, often the use of slang is common among young people and I’ve often found it to be used incorrectly with older aged individuals. Some other examples used to support the argument are gender variations. Gender variation in signed languages come from Irish Sign Language used in Ireland which stemmed from sex-segregated deaf school language use where two gender-distinct sign lexicons developed (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). Signs used for common nouns, verbs, and adjectives in the lexicon such as night, use, and cruel differed by the sex of the signer which is why women born before 1930 and men born before 1945 who attended the Dublin deaf schools typically use gendered forms of ISL (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004).

  “Apple” Female Sign        ”Apple” Male Sign

     Also, another kind of variation in ASL and other sign languages is by ethnicity (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). With African American Deaf signing (Aramburo 1989), signing is influenced by the separation between white and African American communities (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). In southern communities where schools were segregated, there are signing differences between them and African American signers, especially in the South, have different vocabularies from white signers that live in the same area (LeMaster, B and L Monaghan, 2004). 

      The authors provide clear evidence and examples for the different types of variations such as ethnicity, gender, and age in sign language. The author’s argument gives us an understanding about how language works by discussing sign language. It’s explained how deaf people are separated through variations of sign language based on certain characteristics and that there isn’t just one way to sign. The author may be making this argument to show that deaf people don’t all sign the same way and factors such as ethnicity and region are why.


 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 “Variations in Sign Language” by Barbara LeMaster and Leila Monaghan

  1. Your summary skillfully identifies the topic of the text, but you never quite say what the argument is. Why are the authors discussing variation? What does that allow them to argue about (sign) language? You also 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.

    Your review of the evidence is concise and well-written. And excellent use of the images! But avoid here giving your own similar example and focus only on what’s in the text. At the end when you discuss contribution you might say how this is also relevant to other age-differentiated language uses like slang, but don’t interject that in your review of their evidence.

    At the end, you hint (or guess?) at what the text contributes, but I think you can go further. Why are they trying to show signing varies by region, ethnicity, etc.? What does that say about (sign) language? And why does whatever argument that is disprove the “myths” they start out with?

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