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Study Shows How BSL Speakers Mind Their Language

October 7, 2012

Political correctness has caught up with Britain’s deaf community. It is no longer acceptable to sign a slanted eye when talking about the Chinese or to mime a hook nose when referring to Jews. The flick of a limp wrist is now an offensive signal for homosexuals. A finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead is no longer appropriate as the sign for India.

The first ever UK-wide survey into how British sign language (BSL) is used by deaf people of different ages has found a seismic shift has taken place in the signs used by different generations.

For deaf people aged between 16 to 30 years old, no matter where they live in the UK, the only culturally sensitive way to indicate China is to draw the right hand from the signer’s heart horizontally across their chest, then down towards the hip, indicating the shape of a Mao jacket.

Their sign for a Jew – male or female – is a hand resting against the chin and making a short movement down, in the shape of a beard. A gay person is indicated with an upright thumb on one hand in the palm of the other, wobbling from side to side. India is now a mime of the triangular shape of the subcontinent.

Only older British signers still refer to France by mimicking the twirling of a moustache. Younger users of BSL use the French gesture, mimicking a cockerel’s comb – the symbol of France.

Other signs have changed despite there being no offensive connotations. The new sign for Ireland mimics the plucking of a harp, for example, while the traditional sign, opening one’s fingers from an O shape to a U, was said to derive from the shape of a bunch of shamrocks.

Other signs have not changed: all generations of British signers put their fist to their forehead with a finger pointing straight up, mimicking the shape of a Prussian spiked helmet, to refer to Germans.

The three-year BSL Corpus project filmed almost 250 deaf people from eight cities across the UK to find how changes in society had affected the signs they used for 102 key concepts. The findings have been presented at a series of peer-previewed conferences both in the UK and internationally. But the discovery that BSL has become more culturally sensitive, with signs for countries changing more quickly than signs for any other group, has caused the deaf community concern.

“We are nervous about this being seen as another example of political correctness because the changes are more about evolution rather than dictat of some body that approves language,” said Gwilym Morris, from the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCal) at University College London

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the research is the first national web-based and publicly accessible BSL corpus. It is one of very few large sign language projects ever undertaken and only the second, after the Netherlands, to have video data available online.

Work is now under way to use the research to create the first online dictionary and reference source for BSL grammar.

Dr Kearsy Cormier led the three-and-a-half year project. She hopes the research will improve the education of deaf children. “It will also help us to better understand regional variation, such as different signs for ‘green’ or for the number six and the change in vocabulary and grammar of BSL, such as new signs for ‘sleep’ or China,” she writes on the project’s website.

“It will help relate those changes to social factors, such as a signer’s regional background, age or social class – a topic of some debate in the British deaf community!”

Professor Bencie Woll, director of DCal, said the project was the first time it had been possible to document changes in BSL. “The changes are exactly like the changes to spoken English,” she said. “There are all sorts of words we used to refer to people 30 years ago that we’ve stopped using. The difference is that the change in BSL has been very rapid because it wasn’t until deaf people were able to see each other over the internet, that they were able to communicate with anyone who wasn’t standing in front of them and see how foreign signers referred to themselves.

“The younger deaf community doesn’t use these old signs because of a clear process of political correctness, in the same way that the hearing community no longer calls gay people ‘pansies’ or ‘queer’,” she said. “But what the hearing community doesn’t understand about sign language, is that even though the traditional signs are now considered offensive, they are not producing a real-life insult when they are used because they are not just visual representations of a concept.”

But, said Woll, just as with spoken words, some deaf sub-communities are reclaiming signs that would be considered offensive for anyone outside their immediate group to use. “Gay deaf people use the old sign for gay, and disabled deaf people use the traditional sign for disabled, even though no one from outside that group who was socially sensitive, would use those signs any more,” said Woll.

But the most significant sign that has been reclaimed, said Woll, is the sign for deaf. “Deaf people don’t call themselves ‘hearing impaired’ or ‘hard of hearing’,” she said. “They have reclaimed the word because for them, it doesn’t mean they can’t hear: it means they’re part of a community, with its own identity and culture.”

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