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Discourse features of American Indian Sign Language

Discourse features of American Indian Sign Language

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Published by pislproject
Davis, J. (2011). Discourse features of American Indian Sign Language. In C. Roy (Ed.), Discourse in Signed Languages; Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities, Volume 17 (pp. 179 – 217). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Davis, J. (2011). Discourse features of American Indian Sign Language. In C. Roy (Ed.), Discourse in Signed Languages; Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities, Volume 17 (pp. 179 – 217). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

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Published by: pislproject on Nov 03, 2011
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Diss Fas f AmianIndian Sign Langag
 Jeffrey E. Davis
Historically, the vast geographic expanse and extreme linguistic andcultural diversity of North America contributed to Native Americangroups speaking numerous mutually unintelligible languages. In order tomediate this contact and language divide, the Indians often either adoptedor developed an intermediary third language, which anthropologists andsociolinguists sometimes call a
lingua franca
. It has been well documentedthat a highly conventionalized and linguistically enriched signed languageemerged and was used in varying degrees across the major cultural areasof native North America
lingua franca
. This historical linguisticcase of an international signed lingua franca involved American Indiansrepresenting at least (if not more than) 40 different spoken languagegroups across 12 major language families, or phyla (Campbell, 2000;Davis, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010; McKay-Cody, 1997, 1998; Mithun, 2001;Taylor, 1978, 1981, 1997). Based on more than two decades of inten-sive research on the subject of the North American Indian signed linguafranca, I posit and describe in this chapter that this was an unparalleledhistorical occurrence of a signed language being used by this number of hearing community members, from different nations, across such a widegeographic expanse.Although I have written this chapter to focus on American IndianSign Language (AISL) varieties, it is worth noting that in many of today’sintercultural, intercontinental, or international contexts American Sign
Some parts of the material in this chapter draw on material that rst appearedin previous publications (Davis 2006, 2007, 2010; Davis & McKay-Cody 2010;Davis & Supalla 1995; although the material has been considerably reworkedand recast for this chapter and volume. I alternate between “I” and “our,” “me”and “we” when referring to aspects of our NSF-funded eldwork (Davis, PI;McKay-Cody, co-PI), which involved collaboration with other scholars, linguisticstudents, and PISL community stakeholders.
Roy_Part 4_Pgs 177-218.indd 1796/21/2011 1:22:57 PM
180 :  . 
Language (the ASL variety) functions much like a lingua franca. More-over, the notion of a type of “third-language system” emerging fromsign language contact situations is a familiar theme in research literature(e.g., Locker McKee & Davis, 2010; Quinto-Pozos, 2007a). Considerthe international scope, status, and spread of ASL varieties across theNorth American continent. Besides ASL being widely used throughoutmost of Canada, the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and U.S.territories, we nd ASL varieties or dialects (based on degree of mutualintelligibility and similarity of linguistic features) commonly used acrossnorthern Mexico and in many parts of the Caribbean
including PuertoRico, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago in the West Indies. I believethat closer historical and sociolinguistic examination of North Americansigned language varieties will further illuminate language contact phe-nomena such as language hybrids, lingua francas, and Creoles. AlthoughI nd the span and spread of ASL use worth noting, this chapter focuseson North American Indian Sign Language, which is distinct from ASL andinvolves several sign language dialects and varieties.
In the research literature about sign language, varieties of indigenoussigned language used among North America Indian groups are collectivelyreferred to as North American Indian Sign Language (NAISL; cf. Wurtz-burg & Campbell, 1995). Though at times broadly categorized this way,it is essential to note that different varieties of indigenous sign languagehave been identied among American Indian groups (e.g., Inuit-Iñupiaq,
Keresan Pueblo, Navajo/Diné, among others). Plains Indian Sign Lan-guage (PISL) has been the most well documented and described variety of American Indian signed language.
Traditionally, the Indian signed linguafranca served various social and discourse functions within and betweennumerous American Indian communities of the Great Plains and othercultural groups bordering this area. However, the transmission of thePlains Indian signed lingua franca has dramatically waned from its wide-spread use in previous times. This is due to various historical and socialfactors
including its replacement by English and, in some instances, ASL.Today there is an extreme urgency to document, preserve, and revital-ize the Plains Indian signed language variety and maintain traditionalIndian ways of signing. Melanie McKay-Cody and I have collaborated
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Discourse Features of American Indian Sign Language
: 181
for 20 years in efforts to conduct eldwork among Native American com-munities who use the traditional Indian sign language (cf. Davis, 2010;Davis & McKay-Cody, 2010).
We have been conducting ethnographiceldwork and historical linguistic and sociolinguistic research in orderto illuminate several questions about American Indian signed languages:
What is the role and function of indigenous or village signed language?To what extent and in which domains do deaf and hearing members of American Indian communities use sign? What is the etymology of indige-nous signed language and how is it transmitted and acquired? What typesof lexical borrowing or code switching/code-blending exist between thesigned and ambient spoken languages of Native American communities?
Focus o this Chapter
The Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) variety, which is central toour 2006–2011 eldwork project and ongoing linguistic research, en-compasses several dialects among Plains Indian cultural groups (e.g., theAlgonquian and Siouan linguistic families). As its name suggests, PISLwas at one time used predominantly among Indian cultural groups of theGreat Plains region of North America, spreading across a geographic areaof over 1.5 million square miles (4.3 million square kilometers)
an areain size comparable to the European Union’s 27 member states combined.
 However, in modern times there has been a marked decline in the numberof American Indians learning the traditional signed lingua franca (PISL),which is now primarily known by hearing elders and American Indianswho are deaf.
Although PISL (also called
) is cur-rently considered an endangered language, we nd that it remains resilientand is still being learned and used by dozens of American Indians, andpotentially hundreds by some accounts (Marvin Weatherwax [Blackfeetscholar], personal communication, 2010).In this chapter I concentrate on the best documented historical andcontemporary cases, describe the linguistic properties of the PISL variety,and explore the various dialects and discourse functions of what I believeto be a truly “native”
sign language. The ndings reported hereare based on my ethnographic eldwork and observations from over twodecades of combined ethnographic eldwork
collaborating, interpreting,and participating in North American Indian communities
historicallinguistic research of legacy materials. The central focus of my collab-orative research (1990–present) has been and still remains document-ing, preserving, and studying traditional and contemporary varieties of 
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