With regard to the signs used in ASL theater and ASL music, we, the Deaf community, often find it a challenge to understand. Why is it this way?
Let’s look at this diagram of English influence on ASL. At 100%, signing is done with exact English grammar. At zero, there is no English influence. This is the goal of ASL theater.
Where on this diagram is the ASL of Deaf people in USA and Canada? It is greater than just zero. But it is also not 100%. It is somewhere above zero. ASL has some English influences.
Historically, ASL has been influenced by different languages. At first, it started at America School for the Deaf teaching signs in French sign language with English grammar influences. This sign language turned into ASL. There were also influences from local signs as well. Language influences have occurred like this for many years and it is still happening today. For example, there are influences from Universal Signs with signs like “people" and “world”. This is how ASL is.
Ironically, theater ASL has been on the mission of eliminating English influence, which causes ASL to look unnatural and causes some lack of information that results in twisted or skewed messages.
Here are some examples of what eliminating English influences from ASL look like.
Take signs with a letter, the letter is viewed as English, and therefore should be eliminated to become a non-letter sign. Some examples are the sign for “resource” (“R” + “thing”) becomes just “thing,” “therapy” (“T” + “help”) become just “help”, and “training” (“T” + “practice”) becomes just “practice”.
The word “or” is viewed as being English, and therefore it can’t be spelled but only signed like this.
Like the phrase “be nice," the word “be” is viewed as being English, therefore it can’t be used.
Like the phrase “one of my favorite," the word “of” is viewed as being English, therefore it can’t be used.
Does eliminating English influence match ASL’s natural form? No.
ASL has its own standard. ASL does include English words like “or”, “but”, “if”, “be”, “to”, etc. But does ASL follow English grammar completely? No. ASL isn’t English even though ASL does have English influences.
Generally, people who are bilingual have a mixture between both of their languages. They aren’t in complete isolation of each other.
A reason ASL has English influences is because English words and grammar possess benefits of being clearer to make communication easy.
In my ASL experience growing up and my life in deaf schools, at the conversation level, have I ever seen anyone signing without any English influence? No, never. They always have at least some English influences.
Even at Gallaudet University, where I graduated, which is an ASL centered university, have I ever seen anyone signing without any English influence? No, never. They always have at least some English influences.
Interestingly, ASL that has English influence is called Pidgin Signed English “PSE”. Ironically, ASL is English influenced.
As a caution, be careful of anti-English thinking that rejects English influences. This can cause some lack of information which result in twisted or skewed messages. It is best to allow the language to be natural in its own range.
Regarding ASL theater, we, the deaf people, want it to be easy on our deaf eyes to be easily understood and pleasurable to watch. That way we can focus on the story itself instead of figuring what is being said. Let’s make the ASL natural.
I would suggest not being afraid of including English influences. Don’t be scared. You can include them. What is more important is for clear communication.