Project by Penn linguists documents Philadelphia accent in ASL

Like English or any other language, American Sign Language (ASL) has distinct variants that differ from region to region.

Philadelphia is famous for its preferred pronunciations of certain words, like “wooder” for water; its local lexicon, such as “hoagie” instead of sub or grinder; and its regional slang, like the all-encompassing “jawn.” Similar lexical variants exist in Philadelphia ASL, which has a reputation for being more atypical than ASL used in the deaf community at large.

Jami Fisher, a Philadelphian, native ASL signer, and the ASL program coordinator in the Department of Linguistics in the School of Arts & Sciences, says she can look at someone who is signing and tell if he or she is from Philadelphia.

“I can tell based on what kinds of words they use,” she says. “There may be more to it than that, but that’s the most salient, obvious marker for me.” Philadelphia ASL has distinguishing signs for squirrel, have, chocolate, ice cream, strawberry, river, park, birthday, the months of the year, and a host of  other words.

Fisher, Meredith Tamminga, an assistant professor of linguistics and director of the Language Variation and Cognition Lab, and Julie Hochgesang of Gallaudet University, which serves the deaf and hard of hearing, are working on a project to document what they are calling the Philadelphia accent of ASL.

With a $10,000 Research Opportunity Grant from the School of Arts & Sciences, the researchers are conducting video interviews with 12 members of Philadelphia’s deaf community and noting what the interviewees reveal about Philadelphia ASL.

Their research is based on the work of retired Penn linguistics professor William Labov, who for more than 40 years studied the Philadelphia accent and the way vowels move around and create an accent.

“That’s the model that we wanted to follow in the sign language project,” Tamminga says, “to say, ‘What are the things that are way below anyone’s radar that might make the Philadelphia variety of ASL unique?’”

Fisher and Tamminga are currently gathering data from members of Philadelphia’s deaf community—native signers, young and old, who lived in Philadelphia during the critical period in their youth when they acquired language. Fisher, whose parents are deaf, says she learned ASL as a child before
she learned to speak.

Fisher’s father, Randy, is conducting the interviews for the project. A Philadelphia resident for more than 50 years, he knows many of the interview subjects personally, which Fisher says “is ideal for eliciting natural [signing] speech.”

Annotating the interviews is a long and arduous process that involves marking off each snippet of video and detailing what both hands are doing, translating it to English, and also taking note of facial expressions, which can have grammatical meanings in American Sign Language. Tamminga says it can take up to two hours to annotate one minute of signing.

In addition to gathering linguistic data, Fisher says they are working with the Philadelphia deaf community to preserve American Sign Language and the history of the people who speak it.

“Historically, deaf people have had an anxiety of ASL disappearing for a number of social influences,” she says. “There’s always been an anxiety—not just in American Deaf culture, but worldwide—that hearing people will take away or try to squash deaf people’s ability to use what is considered to be a natural means of communication through sign languages.” She says documenting the language and sharing the information with the public is useful to them as researchers, and also to the deaf community.

Fisher says their findings could be used to improve interpreter education. She says deaf individuals who are involved with the project have often remarked that ASL interpreters have trouble understanding them because of the intricacies of Philadelphia ASL.

“That can be critical,” Fisher says. “They may be in a doctor’s appointment or talking about something very serious and to have an interpreter say, ‘What? Can you say that again?’ is disruptive. I think they’re really excited that this could be useful, and it’s for their benefit.”

Philadelphia accent ASL