David Player, a graduate student focusing on sociolinguistics of signed languages in the UNM Department of Linguistics, has begun to document variations in American Sign Language in the Southwest.
Inspired by the Black ASL Project, which studies the variation in ASL in Black communities, Player, who is Black and deaf, is interviewing users of ASL across New Mexico to tease out geographical and cultural distinctions.
“Most people think that the Deaf community is homogenous, and it’s not,” Player said. “Where you grow up, the kind of education you received, the language exposure you’ve had – all of those things are factors and make language variation complex.”
Player first conceptualized the project after he saw students at UNM using a different sign for “lucky” than he was used to. Students from New Mexico told him his sign for “lucky” is used to sign “chile” here.
“What this told me was that there had been an adaptation in the sign for ‘lucky’ so that there’s not a confusion between the sign for lucky and the sign for chile,” he said.
Player found at least four different varieties of New Mexican American Sign Language, including three regional varieties — Northwest New Mexico, associated with native communities, the Middle Rio Grande region, associated with the School for the Deaf in Santa Fe, and Southern New Mexico.