Joseph Hill speaks ASL (American Sign Language), English, Italian and Italian Sign Language. As a linguist, he can also converse in a waning but historically and culturally significant language that is not widely known: Black ASL.

Hill, born deaf, coordinates UNCG’s ASL Teacher Licensure Program. He co-authored a recent book, “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL: Its History and Structure,” published by Gallaudet University Press. Black ASL developed among deaf African American children, especially in the South, as a distinct form of communication because school segregation kept them apart from their deaf white counterparts.

Black deaf children were in their own world without much contact with white deaf children. So they had their own signs for words, which were very different.

“Black deaf children were in their own world without much contact with white deaf children” Hill says. “So they had their own signs for words, which were very different.”

After desegregation, following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, black and white children, both hearing and deaf, began to intermingle.

Although they maintain their culture as black people, supported by groups like National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA), black deaf children eventually stopped using their own sign language, Hill says. Hill and his co-authors, all part of the Black ASL Research Project spearheaded by Gallaudet University and the University of California-Davis, received NBDA’s 2011 Andrew Foster Humanitarian Award for their work.

Many younger black deaf people are aware that an earlier sign language exists, but few are familiar enough to use it. Older black deaf people may still use Black ASL when talking to each other.

The differences in ASL and Black ASL are marked, Hill says. For example, while the ASL sign for towel is to make two fists and mime pulling a towel back and forth across the upper body. Black ASL speakers would rub their elbows to suggest drying them off with a towel.

Sign language itself is not universal, he points out, with differences around the globe and even among regions within the U.S., and with no direct connection to spoken languages. And signing is difficult to master, dependent not only on hand signs but facial expressions and the position of the hands.

ASL developed in 1817 in a Connecticut school now known as the American School for the Deaf. Thomas Gallaudet, a hearing American, and a deaf Frenchman named Laurent Clerc started the school after Gallaudet visited Paris to learn the French method of manual communication or signing.

Gallaudet’s son later established Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a university specializing in deaf education. Hill, recently appointed to the N.C. Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, earned masters and doctoral degrees in linguistics at Gallaudet before joining the Specialized Education Services faculty at UNCG in 2010.

Hill, a Fulbright Scholar, learned Italian and Italian Sign Language through a program at Italy’s Siena School for Liberal Arts. He returns to Italy during the summers to teach.

The son of a hard of hearing mother and a hearing father, Hill grew up signing with two deaf siblings. Communication and understanding were never issues in the Hill home.

“Not many deaf people are as fortunate as I am,” he says.

Photography by Chris English, University Relations