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Language and Belonging

Our roots revealed in a single word.
Language and Belonging

Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Who are you, and where do you come from?

This question, frequently posed in our diverse world, underscores how intricately our identities are woven into the language we use. Language not only binds us to places and people but reveals origins through its colloquial terms and phrases. As students of sign language, we inevitably encounter nuanced variations that provoke the question, ‘What’s the sign for that?’ Yet, beneath this lies a more profound exploration: an understanding of the places, people, and experiences deeply embedded in the signs and expressions we use.

Take the famous ‘pop’ versus ‘soda’ example. The variation in regional dialects may seem innocuous, but what if there’s more to the story? If you visited the mountains of western North Carolina, you would find that the term ‘corn’ is signed to mimic the act of shucking corn. Detour to northeast Florida, and you’d discover this term when signed, would convey how someone may eat corn on the cob. These differences show that how we sign something can often indicate how we interact with it in our world, whether that be a bustling coastal city or a tranquil rural town.

Historically, variation in American Sign Language (ASL) has been driven by factors like generational gaps, regional associations, technology, education, and countless others. Language change has been in the hands of the same community that has been fighting for the linguistic and cultural status of ASL to be recognized by the institutions that govern our lives. The journey for it to be regarded by all as the same robust and capable linguistic system comparable to any spoken language has been long and strenuous. But now, as ASL and the world of deafness are featured on many of the country’s main stages, it has sparked curiosity in us all.

A recent article from the New York Times entitled, “How a Visual Language Evolves as Our World Does” by Amanda Morris, CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), discusses a different landscape that is responsible for language change in the signing community—social media. Both hearing and Deaf users are rapidly sharing examples of signs or full-fledged interpretations of things like popular songs. ASL is gaining momentum as a popular topic and modality on these platforms. However, some older generations of signers are concerned that this new kind of ‘transmission’ (Supalla, as cited by Morris, 2022) will impact cultural connections and change ASL as we know it. This begs the question, “As times change, will language variation still link us to our roots and identities?”

It remains to be seen how the user base of ASL will change as the Deaf community and mainstream media continue to interact and how that will impact language variation. But at its core, language is an essential system that allows us to negotiate meaning and reach mutual understanding. Language evolves in order to stay alive. It exists to connect and has encoded within its DNA shared experience, history, and ancestry.

ASL is a vibrant, captivating language that deserves to be recognized, standing shoulder to shoulder with other languages in the shared story of expression and understanding. To preserve the integrity of this language, we must ask ourselves these questions. Am I learning sign language with the intention of communicating effectively with the Deaf community? Am I thoroughly examining the accompanying culture? What people may overlook is that this is not just a language for the Deaf community; it’s the access point for true belonging to a people and a place. It’s the conduit that uniquely enables individuals to articulate their experiences in a way that’s deeply connected to their identity and community. When people begin to learn sign language, the question goes beyond just ‘What’s that sign?’ It evolves into ‘How does my world translate in the language of a world that is still new to me?’ Language is a living embodiment of our experiences, and thus, to understand the language is to understand the community and the history that shaped it.


Morris, A. (2022, July 26). How sign language evolves as our world does. The New York Times.