Bragg’s life as a writer was not limited to theatrical productions, scripts, and monologues; he has written poetry, articles, narrated his autobiography, and co-written a book on American Sign Language. Additionally, he has been a commenter on Deaf life and ASL over the years, contributing numerous articles and letters.
In high school at Fanwood, Robert F. Panara taught Bragg, and encouraged and guided his interest in English and its various forms of expressions, from poetry to essays. Bragg went on to win the Teegarden Award in poetry at Gallaudet College, and his love of poetry continued to emerge through the years in his theatrical performances. In Bragg’s original poem, “Wonder Versus Work,” he muses, “What for me is in store,/As a day dawns fast?” For Bragg, plenty was in store.
While his central career revolved around theater and the stage, Bragg found time to write or co-write a number of articles, books, and plays. His earliest published writings focused on NTD and on acting. Later, Bragg contributed his thoughts and philosophy on deaf culture and ASL, with occasional pieces on theater. Bragg twice collaborated with Eugene Bergman: first on the play, Tales From a Clubroom, and then on Bragg’s autobiography, Lessons in Laughter: The Autobiography of a Deaf Actor.
Bernard Bragg on ASL and Language
Bragg’s literary efforts, however, were not limited to narrative and dialogue. As a student of the arts, Bragg was first and foremost fascinated with language, whether ASL or English. He grew up at a time when there was no such thing as “ASL.” Certainly there existed a language of its own, but it was not formally recognized as such, nor was it called “ASL.” As a native signer, Bragg mentally explored and examined on his own the signs he saw, the various signing styles, and the variations people used.
His internal discourse on language became more complex under the influence of Robert Panara, who stimulated the young Bragg’s appreciation of and interest in English. Bragg began to develop a philosophy about what sign language was, its relationship to other languages (in particular, English), and its place in global linguistics. As an adult, he began to write articles, enter discussions with other deaf people, and constantly explore the definitions of signed languages. Bragg’s evolving philosophy paralleled the emergence of ASL; the ASL he saw as a child and the ASL that was now being deconstructed were distinct from each other; just as English acted as an umbrella, with American English, British English, and all the dialects and differences within, so did sign language contain the traditional language of Bragg’s childhood and the modern language that we know as ASL. Bragg saw signed languages as linked to the dominant language of each country. For example, English shaped ASL, and new words in English sometimes did not have an immediate counterpart in sign. The same was true for English itself: American English developed from its parent language, and has since borrowed and incorporated other languages. In this process of growth and change itself, ASL is also not immune.
Bragg did not develop his beliefs alone; he read articles, shared in discussions, and continually educated himself. Part of this process is natural to a writer and actor, but part of it was Bragg’s own affinity for language. Part of Bragg’s research of sign language and ASL during this era included working with Dr. Ursula Bellugi at the Salk Institute in the 1970’s. Their work led to further understanding of ASL and the learning process of language for both Bellugi and Bragg.
In 1973, Bragg met Jack R. Olson; their friendship led to conversations about language and the use of ASL. By this time, Bragg had developed and altered his perspective on ASL and its place among global languages. The discussions with Olson not only deepened each man’s understanding of communication and the role ASL and English played, but culminated in their co-authorship of Meeting Halfway in American Sign Language: A Common Ground for Effective Communication Among Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.
Because the book explored the use of “Englished ASL” as a “common ground,” Bragg decided to write a brief article prior to publication, which introduced the book and its intent:
First and foremost, many non-native signers find ASL an arduously intricate and complex language to learn and rarely learn to use it as fluently as native signers. If asked to express themselves in ASL only, they would be limited in their conversations or discussions. Their input would be vague or superficial. In this scenario, native signers of ASL would inadvertently be deprived of an opportunity to be intellectually enriched through an exchange of thoughts and feelings with them — and vice versa, for that matter. One has to have highly developed receptive skills in order to read this kind of language with ease. Worse yet, if non-native signers were left up to themselves to learn the visual counterpart of English (Manually Coded English) on their own, they are bound to either add all the unwieldy affixes to their signing or to leave out a lot of signs assuming most deaf people lipread well enough. As often happens, they would concentrate more on how they sound while signing to native users than on signing itself.
This is where the book will help… The book will work well for deaf and hearing people who both desire a common ground for effective communication between each other.
This common ground is what you would call Englished ASL… Traditional ASL is a non-Englished language; whereas Modern ASL is essentially a semi-Englished modality — a so-called “middle of the road” system. Englished ASL is a standardized, consistently patterned modality with many borrowings from ASL. Rarefied ASL is a free-wheeling, mimetic, poetic-licensed form of expression for dramatic presentation…
Now, the gap between Traditional/Modern ASL and Modern/Englished ASL is not quite enormous. Each of these varieties contains hundreds of identical signs, except that they are differently structured. For example, one can easily transform the following Englished ASL into Traditional or Modern ASL form of expression by simply dropping or replacing some signs, as well as rearranging the sequence:
Englished ASL: The money was stolen and John was the only boy who had known where it was, but the teacher gave him the benefit of the doubt.
Traditional ASL: Someone–steal–money. John–only–boy–know–where–money–but teacher–not sure–he (index fingering) –steal.
Modern ASL: Money was stolen–and John–alone–knew where money was– but teacher gave him benefit (help) of doubt.
As already noted, most signs for these three varieties remain exactly the same, although they are syntactically different. Facial expression accompanying signs is markedly expressed in Traditional and Modern ASL; whereas “lipsynch” (word-mouthing) is more strongly utilized in Englished ASL…
Some purists consider Englished ASL one of those recently invented, artificial systems known as Manually Coded English (MCE)– not a true language unto itself. Whether it is artificial or not, Englished ASL is as old as I can remember. It used to be called “The Sign Language” or “The Language of Signs”…
This book changes nothing; it simply reflects our language and offers ways by which more people can learn to master it.
Since 1973, even more research about ASL has emerged, and Bragg’s thoughts and convictions about his native language changed as well. As Bragg notes, “ASL is still a very young language; it is only 150 to 200 years old, while other languages such as English are hundreds, even thousands, of years old.” Bragg’s knowledge, use of, and fascination with his native language continues to this day, and his more recent publications during the 1990’s and into the present focus on language and communication, and reflect the growth of and change in ASL.
As a bridge between the deaf community of old and the deaf community in 21st century America, Bragg incorporates in-person discussions, magazine and journal articles, blogs, vlogs, and other mediums into his ongoing personal education about language, both written and signed, as a part of his ongoing self-education. He is always ready for a conversation about language, and welcomes new insights.