When speaking English, native Philadelphians have a very distinct accent, one that has been studied by University of Pennsylvania linguists for decades. But how does a Philly accent present itself in American Sign Language?

"Philadelphia ASL historically, and I think anecdotally, has always been seen as a little different," University of Pennsylvania linguistics lecturer Jami Fisher says. “We're not really sure why."

Fisher, who grew up in Philadelphia with Deaf parents and a Deaf brother, is working with Gallaudet University, a university for the Deaf, to study how exactly sign language might vary by region. Along with her research partner and assistant linguistics professor Meredith Tamminga, Fisher is interviewing 12 subjects from Philadelphia’s Deaf community and annotating the videos to analyze how exactly their signs might vary from someone who grew up signing in, say, California. They eventually want to create an online database that would serve as a kind of Philadelphia ASL dictionary.


How Penn linguists are annotating their interviews with Philadelphia signers. Image Credit: University of Pennsylvania


Up until the 1980s, many Deaf children went to special boarding schools, meaning they spent most of their time with their Deaf peers. Because these students didn’t have the opportunity to sign with many people outside their region, they developed their own variations of the language. But after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was put into place, more Deaf students began attending mainstream schools. In schools where there were few other Deaf children, they weren’t exposed to as many signers. Their school interpreters might have had interpreters from another region, so they wouldn't see Philadelphia-specific signs on a regular basis.

Philadelphia is not the only place that has its own distinct way of communicating in ASL. New York signers have different signs and slang, and a different cadence—New Yorkers sign much faster than people from Ohio. Different regions use different signs for words such as picnic and Halloween, much like how some American English speakers use the word “pop” but others use the word “soda.” And since ASL doesn’t always have the exact signs to convey some spoken words (especially in science), communities sometimes come up with different signs to communicate those ideas. 

An online resource of regional ASL accents would be a way to preserve the cultural heritage of Deaf communities in different places.

[h/t: University of Pennsylvania