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The Sociolinguistics of British Sign Language: Toward One Languageor a Variety of Languages?

What is the future of British Sign Language? With thegrowing number of changes in the language, dialect and idiolect, is it headedtoward a single standardised version? Or will it end up as a collection ofsub-languages collectively known as 'British Sign Language'? In Margaret Deuchar's landmark book on British SignLanguage, Michael Stubbs wrote in 1984 that 'BSL provides a striking example ofa topic about which clear and straightforward information is badly needed byeducators and policy-makers, since there is widespread ignorance and confusionabout what deaf signing is' (1984, ix). This remains true today, over twodecades later.

Recognition of BSL

British Sign Language was formally recognized as alanguage in the UK on March 18, 1993. However, it does not have any legalprotection. This basically means that deaf people do not share the same rightsas hearing people when it comes to access to information regarding education,health and employment. As a language, BSL has much in common with otherlanguages. Still, there is much about BSL that is unique, since it also has manyinnate differences from spoken languages. BSL is the primary language of the deafcommunity in Britain, a community that lives and thrives in a larger society ofhearing people, many of whom remain largely unaware of many of the issues in deafculture

BSL variation

According to Ronald Wardhaugh, 'a recognition ofvariation implies that we must recognize that a language is not just some kindof abstract object of study' (Wardhaugh 1998, 5). BSL is no different from anyother language in this aspect. There will always be a wide degree of variationin the speech of one individual when compared with the speech of anotherindividual. In addition, there will be variations within that variation. AsWardhaugh points out, no individual can act freely and 'do just exactly what heor she pleases so far as language is concerned' (Wardhaugh1998, 6). Otherwise,the result will be mass confusion, perhaps even gibberish. This is as true of BSLand its many variations as it is of spoken languages. Citing Chomsky, Wardhaugh also points out that 'languageis essentially a set of items' (Wardhaugh1998, 10). Whether these items arespoken or signed will necessarily affect the methodology of research, but willnot change the basic fact that language is the key to how societies arestructured and how people manage to live together. There are a number of factors to explain why British SignLanguage is so rapidly changing and growing. According to Deuchar, 'just as wefind variation in English, we also find it in BSL, at the same kinds of levelsof the language, and linked to the same kind of social factors' (Deuchar 1984, 130).This was reiterated again more recently by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll.They asserted in 2000 that 'just as there are variations according to region,social group membership and the social situation, so there are regional, socialand situational differences in BSL' (Sutton-Spence and Woll 2000, 23). Thereare a number of societal structures responsible for the variations in BSL. Someof these are directly related to education of the deaf. According to Deuchar,the deaf in Britain are unlike the deaf in some other cultural minoritiesbecause they have not lived in isolation. On the contrary, they have lived inmany different parts of the country. Therefore, the places where they wouldcome together as a meeting point would be institutions for deaf individuals. Thesewould be for the most part educational institutions, particularly those thatare specifically structured for members of the deaf community. Other explanations for variations in BSL center around language users'characteristics. According to Deuchar, these include such qualities as range of competence age of speaker response to setting (formal/informal) level of social skills. Range ofcompetence may vary from user to user, depending on individual ability as wellas level of depth of exposure to BSL. Response to setting may also be a highlyindividual characteristic; different individuals, including members of thehearing population as well as those in the deaf community, respond with varyinglevels of comfort to different settings. While some individuals movecomfortably between formal and informal settings, others will feel moreuncomfortable in less familiar surroundings (Deuchar 1984; Sutton-Spence &Woll 2000). Anotherfactor that accounts for much of the variation in BSL is geographical distance.This can be the cause of both differences and similarities in vocabulary. Onetelling example of this is an experiment Deuchar did regarding variation innumber systems. The investigation was conducted in 1981 among deaf adults inLancaster. She found that 'a certain variant of the number SIX (right index onleft fist) was only used by people over the age of forty who had attended aschool for the deaf in NW England'. In this case she concluded that 'both thesocial factors of age and schools seem to be significant' (Deuchar 1984, 131). Additionalexamples of user's characteristics that are responsible for variation areoffered by Brennan et al. Some pairs of BSL signs have identical manualcomponents, and the only way to tell them apart is through 'non-manual'activity such as the facial gestures that accompany the manual components. Forexample, the signs 'ENOUGH' and 'FED UP' are distinguished only by facialgesture. Another example is that of the signs 'SMART' and 'CAN'T BE BOTHERED',which 'make use of exactly the same action of the hands, but in the latter casea distinctive mouth pattern is used' (Brennan et al., 1984, 2).

Sociolinguistics in the BSL/language continuum

Thesociolinguistics of a language is the study of linguistic and sociologicalvalues. It can also be described as the study of how that language functionswithin society and how it is affected. The sociolinguistics of Sign Languagesis not unlike the sociolinguistics of any other languages. The same issues thataffect other languages affect Sign Languages, although the issues may beexpressed differently. Thefact that BSL is now officially accepted as a language is an important part ofthe history of BSL. It is partially responsible for changing the way BSL isperceived by the larger community. Other sociological and historical changeshave occurred over time. Many of these are due to education. As Sutton-Spenceand Woll point out: 'BSL changed when schools started using it nearly 200 yearsago, and again when it was banned in schools'. Another factor that has affectedthe socio-historical change in BSL is technology, particularly television (Sutton-Spence& Woll 2000, 35).

Status in BSL: Political Correctness

Asnoted earlier, British Sign Language (and Sign Language in general) is like anyother language in many aspects. This includes political correctness. 'Politicalcorrectness has caught up with sign language for deaf people. Gestures used todepict ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals are being droppedbecause they are now deemed offensive' (Mickelburgh 2004). This is true of AmericanSign Language as well: 'Traditional sign language words and letters for the useof the deaf in America are being changed to be made more "culturallyappropriate"' (Davis 2000). However,it is true that many signs are still in use that may be considered as racist.One explanation for this is that deaf communities often feel that hearingprofessionals try to impose their own values on deaf culture, which isconsidered offensive and intrusive by many members of the deaf community. 'Thisis not concerned with the dangers of offending someone by mistake, but withsigns that are considered unacceptable because of deaf politics and deaf pride'(Sutton-Spence & Woll 2000, 249). Sociallyunacceptable language in BSL is similar to socially unacceptable language ingeneral, and includes taboo signs linked to taboo topics, insults, andexpletives.

Other Variations in BSL

Othervariations in BSL may be due to ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, andsocial networks.

Ethnic Variations

In someareas (for example, this is particularly true in the U.S.), there are cleardivisions between some 'black' ASL dialects and some 'white' ASL dialects [largelydue to segregation]. In Britain, however, 'the variation in BSL between blackand white signers appears to be less marked' (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2000, 27).Some explanations for this include the fact there were relatively few blackpeople in Britain until the 1950s. In addition, black deaf children attended 'mixed'deaf schools, and were therefore less inclined to be divided by racialcategories. Thereis, however, a growing sense of identity among black deaf adults in Britain.This has lead many researchers to conclude that eventually there will be adefinite variation along based on racial divisions, resulting in a distinctive 'black'dialect of BSL as time goes on (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2000, 28). Incontrast, the British Asian deaf community relatively small. However, genetic deafnessseems to be more common to British Asians, so as this segment of the deafcommunity grows, its members may develop a dialect of their own as well.

Religious Variations

Religionalso has an effect on BSL, particularly the Roman Catholic and Protestantreligions. 'The signing of deaf British Catholics is strongly influenced byIrish Sign Language because Irish monks and nuns have provided education forCatholic deaf children....and Irish-trained priests serve the Catholic deafcommunities in Britain' (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2000, 28). In addition,signers tend to have two variants of BSL, and will use them differentlydepending on whether they are communicating with people within their ownreligion, or with those outside of it.

Gender/Sexual Variations

It hasalso been noted that in some variations of Sign Languages, the differencesbetween genders are markedly different. This has been attributed to the factthat often males and females are educated in separate institutions, and whenthey leave these institutions must learn how to communicate with each other.However, this is not the case with British Sign Language, where the differencesin language between male and female members of the deaf community are reportedto be unimportant (Sutton-Spence 2000, 26).

Situational Variations

Situational changes have an effect on BSL as they do on all other languages. Changes occurdepending on the number of people the speaker is addressing; for example, whenaddressing a single individual as opposed to addressing an entire group.Changes also occur when the signer is addressing someone who does not have astrong grasp of BSL, either a member of the deaf community who is foreign, oran English-speaker who is not a member of the deaf community. Other situationalchanges also affect BSL, as when the signer is addressing strangers, oraddressing small children (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2000, 31).

Language Planning: Status Planning and Corpus Planning

Accordin gto Peter Trudgill, government involvement in language is often referred to as 'languageplanning'. Sometimes this is a commendable and welcome activity, butnot necessarily. Trudgill further distinguishes between status planning andcorpus planning. Status planning occurs in countries which have to first choosea national language or languages and subsequently are faced with the issue ofdeveloping and/or standardising the language or languages (Trudgill 2000, 131-132). Often, however, the role of a national government goes beyond selecting a nationallanguage. For example, the language, having already been chosen, must bedeveloped and standardised; a suitable orthography must be chosen, or decisionshave to be made over selection of one dialect over another. This may get asspecific as the government being required to assist in vocabulary, grammatical,and phonological development. This type of language planning is much morespecific and involves much more active involvement on the part of thegovernment, and is referred to as 'corpus planning' (Trudgill 2000,135). It has been noted, however, that the distinction between 'corpus planning'and 'status planning' was first distinguised by H. Kloss in 1969 (Covarrubias1983, 42). Corpusplanning in terms of BSL standardisation is a complex issue. Some researchesassert that this will increase cultural understanding and go some way towardsalleviating racial prejudice and tension (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2000).Social inclusion was also emphasised with respect to users of BritishSign Language. Most agree that promotion of BSL will add to the qualityof life for many people. It does remain important that enactment of policies by the government recognizethe ongoing significance of British Sign Language within the signing community.The fact that the deaf have spent many years and much effort fighting theiridentification as disabled is ofprimary importance. It is essential that the government continue to treat BSLlike any other minority language within the EU. Democratic institutions should seethat mechanisms are put into place that recognize the merit of different voicesand perspectives. This is the only way members of the deaf community will beable to effectively organize and increase their empowerment within society atlarge.

Other Issues in Standardisation

Accordingto Sutton-Spence and Woll, it is very clear that there is not a single,standard form of BSL (2000, 37). 'The BSL/English Dictionary has onlyrecently been published and contains a limited number of signs', they write. 'StandardEnglish is used o television and radio and by government organisations. BSL ontelevision is not standard and deaf television presenters use differentregional signs' (Sutton-Spence and Woll 2000, 38). Although it is believed thata form of 'standard BSL' may eventually emerge, they assert that because thesocial context of BSL varies so widely from that of English, that it isimpossible to predict what form it will eventually take. Furthermore,there is the issue that the signs of BSL can be divided into those of theestablished lexicon, or those of the 'productive' lexicon, although BSL clearlyhas far fewer 'basic signs' fixed in the lexicon (Sutton-Spence and Woll 2000,197).
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