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HomeLanguage NewsnewsThe Philly Sign Language Accent

The Philly Sign Language Accent

  About 130 of the world’s estimated 6,500 languages are mutually unintelligible forms of sign language. Sign languages can be broken up into linguistic families and are not just simple translations of existing languages. For this reason it makes sense that, like other languages, sign languages can have regional accents, as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are investigating in Philadelphia. Linguists Jami Fisher and Meredith Tamminga, the head researchers for this project, secured a $10,000, one-year Research Opportunity Grant from Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences to gather data on Philly ASL. “In all sign languages,” Fisher told Philly Mag, “there are regional variations. But in the deaf community, Philadelphia has always been known anecdotally as very different.” Tamminga elaborated in Penn News; “We don’t know much about it beyond the lexical level, which is the equivalent of who says ‘pop’ and who says ‘soda.’ People get really excited about it but from a linguistic point of view, it’s fairly superficial. People can learn new words and the words spread.”

The divergence of the Philly ASL accent has to do with the history of the landscape for deaf education in the United States. Through the introduction of a standard American Sign Language in 1814 to the establishment of a relatively isolated school for the deaf in Philadelphia in 1820, Philly ASL incubated, flourished, and is now on the decline. Much of Fisher and Tamminga’s research will deal with the preservation of the accent, “”We want to make sure we preserve the history and preserve whatever this accent is,” says Fisher. The team will do this by recording video interviews with 12 members of Philadelphia’s deaf community and then annotating the videos to demonstrate the way the accent infuses the language. “In the community, long before me, people have been saying we need to document this, we need to get these people on video,” Fisher told Quartz. “Some people are older and are passing away. We need to get this to preserve our language.”

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