We’re all aware of the large number of dialects that make up our spoken languages around the world. But with many ignorant of the fact that separate forms of sign language exist in different countries, there’s even less education on the different dialects that populate specific sign language families.
Black ASL Origins
Take American Sign Language, for example. The Washington Post tells the story of Carolyn McCaskill, who in 1968 enrolled with nine other Deaf black students in a newly integrated school for the Deaf. From the Post:
“When the teacher got up to address the class, McCaskill was lost.
“I was dumbfounded,” McCaskill recalls through an interpreter. “I was like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”
The teacher’s quicksilver hand movements looked little like the sign language McCaskill had grown up using at home with her two deaf siblings and had practiced at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, just a few miles away. It wasn’t a simple matter of people at the new school using unfamiliar vocabulary; they made hand movements for everyday words that looked foreign to McCaskill and her fellow black students.”
Today we know that McCaskill grew up using what is now called Black American Sign Language. This form is known for using more two-handed signs than American Sign Language, with Black ASL featuring a higher location of signs (at the forehead level) and a larger space used compared to ASL.
Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explains and demonstrates the differences in ASL and Black ASL here:
Sign language is not universal. The different dialects need to be studied independently, just as one would study spoken languages. We can help spread this message by supporting education on the subject, such as the Black ASL Project. Another great resource is this interview conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education with Joseph Hill, who hopes awareness will make sign language a bigger part of the linguistics community.
Yuchi (Euchee) is a unique language spoken by the Yuchi people, who were forcibly relocated from Tennessee, Georgia and other neighboring states to Oklahoma in the 1800s. As of 2014, the number of first-language Yuchi speakers has dwindled to just four, and all of those speakers are above the age of 80.
A Unique Language
Yuchi is a fascinating language. It is not known to be related to any other language on the planet, and there was no written alphabet until the 1970s. There are 49 phonetic sounds (38 consonant sounds and 11 vowel sounds), which is twice the number of most Indigenous languages from the Southeast.
It also has different speeches for males and females, and today the number of first-language male speakers is down to only one. From Yuchi.org:
“The language more than has gender – in fact it is very nearly two different languages – a men’s speech and a women’s speech. The way something is said in these two variations is often quite different. Further, Yuchean not only has tenses, but it varies its structure according to whether a Yuchi is talking or a non-Yuchi is talking, preserving contexts of time and circumstance. All these variations can add a number of complicating layers to the grammar and the effort needed to master it.”
Efforts to Save Yuchi
The short documentary above is a beautiful look at how the community is attempting to keep the language alive by fully immersing young people in the language at the Euchee Language Project in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Also of interest is their site dedicated to the non-profit, where you can donate, listen to audio and learn more about the Yuchi language.
“What we want, what we need in our communities, what our goal is, is to keep alive our languages so our young people will have breath-to breath knowledge of their traditions, of their ceremonies, of their medicines, of the stars.” – Dr. Richard Grounds