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American Sign Language literature

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Title: American Sign Language literature  
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American Sign Language literature

American Sign Language literature (or ASL literature) refers to stories, poetry, dramatic productions, folk tales, and even songs in American Sign Language.[1] ASL literature can denote works translated from other literatures into ASL, like Patrick Graybill's translation of the poem "Not Waving, but Drowning",[2] or more often, works composed originally in ASL itself. Other notable performers of ASL literature include Ben Bahan, Peter Cook, Ella Mae Lentz, Sam Supalla, and Clayton Valli.


  • History 1
  • Features and form 2
    • ASL Theatre 2.1
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Every spoken language used today originated in a pre-written, or oral form. Because no widely accepted method has yet developed for recording American Sign Language in writing, it persists, maybe uniquely, as a purely "oral" language.[3] Only with the advent of film technology in the early 20th century could ASL be recorded, preserved, and distributed. The earliest example of recorded signing is a National Association of the Deaf compilation from between 1910 and 1920, containing various types of ASL discourse, including lectures, poems, stories, and songs.[4]

Since the first films of ASL lectures in the early twentieth century, more ASL performances were gradually recorded, which has affected the tradition.[5] Today, a wide variety of ASL works is documented on video, and deaf performers continue to perform ASL stories, poems, and other works live to enthusiastic audiences at festivals, university events, clubs, and social gatherings. Each year, Gallaudet University, Deaf West Theater, and other deaf groups mount theatrical productions in ASL. Furthermore, many talented storytellers and poets perform works that unfortunately are never recorded; we should remember that video captures only a small percentage of ASL literature. The prevalence of digital video technology has allowed more signers to record their own ASL productions more easily and share them with more people than ever before. YouTube, Facebook, and Apple's Photo Booth have all contributed to wider exposure of original ASL creations.

Features and form

ASL literary works often feature creative uses of signs, handshapes, facial expressions, and classifiers. Different performers have developed recognizably different styles and themes.

One common type of ASL literature is the "ABC" poem, performed by young children and adult ASL poets alike. This type of poem is characterized by the use of a series of handshapes that follows the order of the manual alphabet.[6] There are a huge variety of signs that use each handshape in the alphabet, but poems will frequently use ASL classifiers (see American Sign Language grammar) that provide the poet much more room to exercise his own creativity. A closely related form of poetry is the handshape poem, in which an ASL poet performs a poem or narrative using a limited variety of handshapes. This constricts the poet in form, much as rhyme or meter does in written poetry, and requires a precise use of motion and non-manual expression.[7]

The most prevalent type of ASL literature, however, is ASL storytelling. Storytelling transcends basic communication, incorporating techniques such as the "visual vernacular", as well as a feel for theatrical performance that Ben Bahan refers to as "smooth signing".[8] Storytelling has served as a method of historical preservation, a mark of cultural identity, and most importantly, a common form of entertainment. Just as novelists perfect the art of storytelling through the medium of the written word, Deaf storytellers develop their own distinctive styles and techniques. In a culture that has not always been able to access the same forms of entertainment as hearing culture, such as movies or music, the Deaf have become fiercely proud of their storytellers.[8]

ASL Theatre

The National Theatre of the Deaf originated in 1967 and performs both classic and original works in American Sign Language.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Bahan, Ben. (2006). "Face-to-Face Tradition in the American Deaf Community." In Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language Literature. Ed. H.-Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Heidi Rose. University of California Press.
  2. ^ Poetry in Motion (
  3. ^ Peters, Cynthia L. Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon
  4. ^ Bahan, Ben. (2006). "Face-to-Face Tradition in the American Deaf Community." In "Signing the Body Poetic." p. 23
  5. ^ Krentz, Christopher. (2006). "The Camera as Printing Press: How Film has Influenced ASL Literature." In Signing the Body Poetic.
  6. ^ Peters, pp. 27-28
  7. ^ Graybill, Patrick. In "Poetry in Motion."
  8. ^ a b Bahan, "Face to Face Tradition"
  9. ^ "National Theatre of the Deaf – HISTORY". Retrieved 14 August 2014. 

Further reading

  • Bauman, H.-Dirksen L., Jennifer L. Nelson and Heidi Rose. (2006). Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language Literature. University of California Press.
  • Peters, Cynthia L. Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet UP, 2000.
  • Rutherford, Susan. A Study of Deaf American Folklore. Burtonsville, MD: Linstock, 1993.

External links

  • ASL Vlog & Video Directory
  • Experience the Alphabet!, by Pickles & Cornbread (multimedia children's alphabet/puzzle book and activity packet featuring American Sign Language hand shapes)
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