Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Black Deaf People

Posted by Neal on December 2, 2017

A couple of posts back, I tackled my brother’s question of whether one would say “black little people” (yes), or “little black people” (not so much). M. Makino commented,

I usually try to shorthand the order of adjectives for students by telling them that the stuff people feel is closest to their identities comes last. It seems feasible that someone whose ethnicity was of extreme importance might put it after “little”.

My response:

… Your point gives me an idea for another collocation battle to carry out in a corpus: “Deaf” vs. “black”.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s go!

Let’s start by pulling up our handy adjective-ordering template:

evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

OK, let’s see…black is a color adjective. Deaf is a human propensity adjective (more specifically, one of physical state, as opposed to mental state or behavior). So we would expect deaf black to be the usual way of ordering theses adjectives. Now let’s see what we actually get.

Searching COCA for deaf black, I got nothing. Searching for black deaf, I got two examples, both in the same sentence:

Merriweather, a member of the Atlanta Black Deaf Advocates Board and Miss Black Deaf America 1991, is featured in the October issue of the magazine.

In search of a larger sample, I turned to the NOW Corpus. For deaf black, I got a single hit:

You can imagine the delight of students when the first deaf black woman lawyer in the US visited them last Monday.

The clear winner turned out to be black deaf, which returned the following examples, among others:

  • Childress was a founding member of National Black Deaf Advocates, and established BRIDGES, an organization assisting black deaf interpreters and their clients
  • advocate, founder, fighter and creator of things that are now part of black deaf community, as well as an interpreter, ” says Fred Beam, a deaf
  • And she particularly cared about black deaf people being able to be their best selves
  • to safeguard the general health and welfare of Black deaf and hard of hearing people
  • hiring more black deaf and hearing ASL interpreters; and hosting a public town hall to update the community
  • the hiring more black deaf and ASL interpreters and black trans women, indigenous people, and others from vulnerable
  • The son of a deaf woman and volunteer with the Detroit Black Deaf Advocates, Smith hopes to one day blend his fluency in American Sign Language with
  • So now it’s the LGBT community vs. us black deaf. Sigh!
  • the Blade expressed disagreement with this person’s claim that LGBT deaf people and black deaf people at Gallaudet were at odds with each other.
  • While at the university, Whyte also met and worked with Miss Black Deaf America 2011-2013, Ericka Baylor.

What gives? Well, with black little person/people, I concluded that whereas black person/people was an ordinary phrase, little person/people was a compound noun, and that was why it didn’t get broken up by black. Maybe deaf person/people is a compound, too. Let’s run it through the same tests we did with little person/people and black person/people in the other post:

  1. Stress shift: deaf person and deaf person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
  2. Idiosyncratic meaning: deaf person/people has a mostly compositional meaning here. Indication: Phrasal
  3. Suitability of other nouns: deaf men, deaf women, deaf children, deaf bakers, and deaf CEOs are all still deaf people. Indication: Phrasal
  4. One-replacement: deaf people and hearing ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

No luck, then. Both black and deaf seem to form phrases with the nouns they modify, so we would still expect deaf black rather than black deaf. So does Makino’s rule of thumb about closeness to your identity may work better than the adjective-ordering template when it comes to describing people? Maybe; do black Deaf people consider deafness to be a more fundamental part of their identity than their race? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some do and some don’t.

9 Responses to “Black Deaf People”

  1. yamikuronue said

    Why isn’t “black” also a human propensity adjective? It’s not really describing the color of the person, it’s describing their ethnicity.

  2. Ellen Kozisek said

    Black is not a color adjective when used to describe a person. Yes, it comes from a color adjective, but it’s not, in this use, being used as a color adjective. The correct color adjective for most black people would be brown, not black.

  3. Agreed with the previous two commenters that black, in this case, isn’t a color. But I don’t think it’s a “human propensity,” either. I think it fits best in “origin.” Indeed, in other renderings of the order-of-adjectives sequence, I’ve found “proper adjective” used where Neal has “origin,” and proper adjectives include (among other things) ethnicities. So does that change anything in Neal’s analysis? I don’t think so, because origin and color are right next to each other in the sequence, both closer to the noun than human propensity (deaf).

  4. undina-bird said

    So interesting!

    > do black Deaf people consider deafness to be a more fundamental part of their identity than their race? I don’t know.

    I guess that the number of deaf people is much less than the number of black people… right? “deaf people” are just a small part of “black people”… that is why deafness feels more “fundamental”? Because it’s more, well, distinguishing?

  5. M. Makino said

    I agree that “black” fits best into the “origin” slot of the above chart – or even “material” depending on how the speaker’s race construct works. Would the stone Olmec heads that some say signify pre-Columbian African-American contact be “black stone people” or “stone black people”?

  6. Kathy W said

    One thing that may be influencing the word order is the distinction often made between deaf and Deaf. Deaf (capitalized) is usually referring to a Deaf cultural identity, while deaf (lowercase) is more generally the physical condition. When I take that into consideration, ‘Deaf people’ gives different results for the tests. To me, it doesn’t pass the stress shift test, and although “deaf people and hearing ones” works, “Deaf people and hearing ones” seems nonsensical.

    • Neal said

      A fair point. The Google searches are not case-sensitive, so I can’t limit the search in that way, but I could separate out the results into those with Deaf and those with deaf to see what happens.

  7. BC said

    This would be a good place to discuss “people first” language:

    P.S., love your essay on “Omitting “That”! (Is the title a play on Davidson’s “On Saying That”?)

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the kind words on the GG piece; I’m glad she decided to rerun it!

      Most of the examples of person/people-first language on that list are declarations telling about how a person has the relevant attribute: “She has a developmental delay” vs. “She’s developmentally delayed.” It’s a bit trickier when that attribute is not the main thought. In that case, you have to use a relative clause or a “with”: “The person with a developmental delay made a request.” But then you’re using the attribute to define that person! If there is more than one person with a developmental delay, you have to use a nonrestrictive relative clause: “Robin, who has a developmental delay, made a request.” Not to say that it’s not worth the effort, but that it’s not so simple as lists like this suggest. Other attributes, like “uses a wheelchair,” don’t even allow the “with” shortcut in the first place.

      The later examples (“customer” vs. “client, consumer, recipient”) are, I guess, euphemisms rather than person-first language. I don’t really get why “customer” is better than “client” or “consumer”, though.

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