SASL Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 - Page 60

ASL Literature Byrne number of unwritten languages. Ong (1982, 2009) believes that, out of approximately 3,000 spoken languages in the world today, about 2,922 languages are oral. Another source indicates that, out of 5,000 or more languages, roughly 500 have a written tradition (Kenrick, 2000). Examples of spoken languages that have no written form are Abom (a language of Papua, New Guinea), Alabama (a Native American language of the United States), Assiniboine (an Aboriginal language of Canada), and Reli (a language of India) (University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2015, n.p.). These languages have a rich literature of their own. During the time when awareness that ASL is a bona fide human language was still emerging, colleges and universities around the country struggled over whether ASL could be taught as a foreign language for credit on a par with French or Spanish, for example. The lack of written literature for the signed language was viewed as a serious obstacle and was used as an argument against the offering of ASL coursework. Nancy Frishberg (1988) who is hearing and knows ASL felt obligated to write a scholarly article to respond to such resistance. She wrote that “the case can be made by analogy with the greatest traditions in Western and non-Western literature that written forms of language are not required for a community to possess a well-formed aesthetic in poetry, narrative, humor, and rhetoric” (p. 150). The classical Greek Odyssey was used as an example for how it was delivered orally long before it was written down. The important point that Frishberg made lies in how the Odyssey was originally created in the oral form. This suggests that literature being limited to the written form is too narrow. While the situation for ASL literature has now improved, there is one important observation to consider. Gallaudet University professor, Lois Bragg (1993), who is deaf, pointed out that “ASL…is an ‘oral’ language – perhaps the only true living ‘oral’ literature in the western world” (p. 416). It appears that a new dimension to the foreign language learning experience has taken place with students studying ASL. They are not only learning a new language, but that it is part of an oral culture that deaf people have cultivated and maintained right here in the United States and Canada. ASL has its share of misunderstandings as a human language, including how it was once thought to be lacking linguistic properties and is rather made up of rudimentary gestures or is even a code of English. Language has been narrowly defined as spoken, not signed (Meier, 2002). Deaf people suffered the consequences of social stigma against their language. Signed language was widely forbidden from use in American and Canadian schools for the deaf during the latter part of the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth century (see Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989 for the historical review of deaf education). Spoken language bias is a serious matter and only recently has it become a subject of scholarly scrutiny. It is hoped that this attention will lead to a long deserved provision of quality education for deaf students (Cripps & S. Supalla, 2012). Should there be bias associated with literature, it would be about literature having to be written. The dominant nature of written culture in the western world at present is a serious matter. Any person who does not know how to read and write is widely viewed as problematic. Bahan (1992) wrote on behalf of the deaf community and ASL as follows: The issue of whether literature needs to be written in order to be literature is a question of power, not merit. Literature can indeed be either oral or written. What we need to do is find a way to explicate and demonstrate the literary value of our oral tales. In order to do that, Bahan and [S.] Supalla . . . in their ASL Literature Series . . . have analyzed their narratives, Bird of a Different Feather and For a SASLJ, Vol. 1, No. 1 – Fall/Winter 2017 60