How Pidgin Signed English Bridges ASL and English

What kind of sign language is it when you do not sign pure American Sign Language (ASL) with its own grammar or use signed exact English? It is called pidgin signed English or PSE. A more recent term is "contact signing," which conveys that it is a language that develops between people who have contact with English and signing.

One variety is Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE) which chooses the sign based on its meaning in ASL rather than its sound or spelling in English but uses English grammatical order in constructing the signing. This differs from Manually Coded English where the signs represent English words rather than the concepts they represent in ASL.

Pidgin is the term for any language that naturally develops between people who use different languages. But pidgins are usually narrow, simplified, have a limited vocabulary, and no native speakers.

For these reasons, the term is falling out of favor. In part, this is likely because PSE is the form of sign language that is commonly used in places such as Gallaudet and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). But also, there are significant differences in the pidgins that develop between two spoken languages and between signed languages and spoken languages.

Picture of a man and women communicating with sign language
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What Is Pidgin Signed English?

PSE is not a true language and lacks rules. Sign linguistics experts view it as a way to "bridge" the gap between native ASL speakers and native English speakers. Native speakers can be either deaf or hearing. It contains a mix of ASL rules and English grammar. The signs used in PSE come from ASL, but they are not used in an ASL'ish way, but rather in a more normal English pattern.

To speed up communication, PSE speakers may not utilize certain elements of the English language such as the definite and indefinite articles "the" and "a." They may not use the endings of words, such as not signing "ing," or not always signing or fingerspelling the past tense. For example, a person might say "I finish clean" instead of "I cleaned." PSE is quite individualistic and users communicate in whatever way they feel is comfortable. PSE use is more like a continuum between ASL and English.

Research Into PSE

Ceil Lucas of Gallaudet University's Department of Linguistics has done a fair amount of research into PSE together with Clayton Valli. Lucas and Valli's work is described in more detail in the 1992 book "Language Contact in the American Deaf Community," (ISBN 0-12-458040-8). They pointed out the differences between PSE and spoken pidgins and proposed the term "contact signing" instead.

One difference is in not using various word endings seen in English, such as the possessive and the past tense endings. Another significant difference is that the vocabulary for contact signing comes from ASL while the grammar comes from English, which is not what is typically found in spoken language pidgins.

1 Source
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  1. Quinto-Pozos D. Sign Languages in Contact. Washington DC: GU Press; 2012.

Additional Reading

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.