When fingerspelling throws a curveball
Oliver, Judith Allen
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Inquiry into Deaf adolescent use of sign language is an understudied subject. The major focus of this research was to provide a linguistic description of fingerspelling used by twelve Deaf teenagers in grades 9 through 12 at a residential school for the Deaf. The aim was to provide an account of how these Deaf adolescents use fingerspelling when it comes to frequency of use, word-class, abbreviations, lexicalizations, and to examine patterns and variations that appear in adolescent’s fingerspelling. There is a great deal of research on acquisition of fingerspelling in early childhood as well as its use in the adult years but there is a limited look at adolescent fingerspelling behavior. In bridging the gap in literature, a sociolinguistic interview was used to gather corpus data, which was analyzed with the aid of the digital tool, ELAN. Using a complex systems framework called The Linguistics of Speech a frequency distribution was carried out and the most frequently produced fingerspellings emerged. Quantitative measures of the distribution of fingerspelled tokens were further expressed visually on the A-curve. The hallmark of this theoretical model is, first, that it has never been used in the study of Sign Language. Second, it considers the individual speaker’s agency in use of variants and provides a way to deal with the considerable amount of variation that exists in fingerspelling. While nouns are the most commonly occurring fingerspellings they are not the most frequent recurring in the language of these adolescents. This study showed that function words are the most frequently repeated fingerspellings by this group of adolescents and that a small set of ten fingerspellings makes up 35 % of the overall fingerspelling corpus. The curveball is that lexicalized forms of grammatical words and verbs more frequently reoccur as compared to a large set of nouns that occur only once.