BSL in its Social Context
What is social context in BSL?
In linguistics we sometimes might seem to treat language as though it was nothing to do with people. It is seen as a sealed system, subject to its own rules.
Social context recognises that people use language and that language is a part of society. Social context tries to describe, and account for, the different ways that different people use language.
Social context looks at relationships between language and society and looks at language as people use it. It considers the relationship between a persons language and their social identity.
We observe the way that people use language differently and try to explain why this is. This explaining is not always easy.
Social context asks
(a) what variations are there in a language and
(b) why do they come about?
Social context is, interesting, exciting and fraught with difficulties. There are very few definite neat answers to things. What we need to do is try to become aware of the way language varies according to who people are, what they are doing, and the attitudes they have to their language. We need to remember that there has been very little research into the Social context of BSL. This course may well raise more questions than it can answer, but at least we can become aware of the issues involved, even if we cannot come up with a simple answer.
Social context will think about variety within a language. Everybody who speaks a language has a very wide linguistic repertoire unless they have very severe learning difficulties, or are learning the language as a foreign language. This means, they can use language in many different ways, depending on the situation they are in. The sort of language that they use also depends on their social background and social identity.
We have said that Social context looks at the way relationship between society and people and language.
What is the relationship between language and people?
There are 4 possibilities:
a) language influences society and people
b) there is interaction as language influences people and society and people and society influence language;
c) there is no influence of either so language is just a tool used by people and there is no social effect.
We can probably discount number 4:
Neither interact with each other or influence each other.
Some linguists would like to see language as something pure, abstract and untouched by the real world, like a mathematical formula, but that's just a convenient way of thinking about the structure of language. As soon as we look at people using language we can see that the practical version of this abstraction is much more complex.
In the end we will probably need to say that number three:
Society and language influence each other
Is the correct way to look at the relationship. Speech and social behaviour are constantly interacting. All the time language is changing because of social contexts and social contexts cause the language to be changed. However, this does not mean that we should not explore the two other possibilities in some depth, because they can enlighten us about the relationship of language and society.
1) Language influences people.
There are two views here - one is more extreme than the other. The first idea is that language is so powerful that it actually affects how you see the world; the second is that is influences the way we think and behave.
A linguist called Whorf claimed language actually affects the way you see the world (so language is like a pair of glasses through which we see everything). This led to the Sapir-Whorf theory, also called the Whorfian hypothesis. It was based originally on studies of the Hopi Indians.
Whorf said that Hopi and European had different ways of talking about the world, so it influenced the way they saw the world. The Hopi language treats the world as full of things that are non-discrete and flowing whereas European languages see them as discrete and countable. European languages treat time as something that can be divided up into separate seconds, minutes and days. Trees and plates can be counted, but water and hope cannot and the language makes distinctions here. The Hopi language treats time as indivisible so that Hopi will not talk about minutes and weeks. Trees and water are simply treated linguistically as non-discrete items. The result of this (claimed Whorf) was that the Hopi genuinely see the world differently from Europeans. Their language structure makes them see the world differently.
Unfortunately, for this theory, nobody asked the Hopi if they really saw the world differently. It would seem that they see it just as we do. After all, what would happen to a bilingual Hopi/English speaker? Would their world view shift depending on the language they were speaking?
Another example of this theory is the often-cited fact that Eskimos have lots of different words for snow, so it means they actually see different kinds of snow, whereas we only see "snow". But this isn't really true because we can use words to describe the snow if we need to, e.g. hard, soft, wet, dry etc. We aren't tuned to thinking about it that way, but if it becomes important, we can easily do so. We might not know the names of different makes of car, but still be able to tell the difference between a Fiat and a Rolls Royce, for all that. So could an Eskimo, even if the Inuit language didn't have the exact words. Besides which, Eskimos don't really have all those words for snow - it's just one of those pieces of information that everyone repeats and no-one has checked if it's true. If you check, you find it isn't true!
There is an important lesson here that linguists can learn: don't make great generalisations about languages and people that you don't know very well. Any Hopi or Inuit could have told us immediately that this was a load of nonsense, but no-one ever thought to ask them. Many people, including linguists have done the same when describing sign languages, too. Often they have said things that people have come to believe when deaf signers have known it wasn't true.
George Orwells book 1984 brought this idea up, with the idea of Newspeak which The Party was introducing to replace Oldspeak.
The Party view was that the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible A heteretical thought should be literally unthinkable, as least so far as thought is dependent on words
Orwell was making a dig at the Whorfian hypothesis when he wrote about Newspeak. The point about the story is that this sort of control does not really work, and cannot work because if we do not have words for our thoughts, we just create them anyway.
Still, some politicians and businesses do like to believe that the language we use will affect the way we think about something. In 1976, the British government replaced The Official Secrets Act with The Official Information Act. The name had gone from secret to information but the laws were unchanged. After the Second World War, Britains Ministry of War became the Ministry of Defence. It is also worth noting that a defence procurement contract is still an arms deal by another name.
So, language doesn't affect what we can see in the world, but it is still possible that language affects people and society because maybe language still affects the way we can think.
Some people say that sign languages don't have abstract signs because all signs are iconic and so deaf people can't think about abstract things (like love, bravery, inflation, investment for the future etc). IF this was true, then we could say this was an example of language affecting people. But it isn't. BSL can express anything that English can.
A linguist called Basil Bernstein found that middle class children used an "elaborated" code of English in school. This meant they used more abstract words, less context dependent words and more complicated sentences. Working class children seemed to use a more "restricted" code. This meant using more concrete words, more context-dependent and less complicated sentences. So some people (but NOT Bernstein) said this means working class children can't think in abstract ways because their language doesn't allow them to. This, of course, is nonsense. Just as with deaf people. All it means is that the children used different ways of expressing the same thing.
One example of the way that language is said to affect society is in sexist language. The theory is that language affects the way we view men and women because it treats men and women differently. If you use words like chairman or fireman it implies only men can do the jobs, so women feel left out. It is worth noting, though, that the form of the words can influence our view of things. If you see the word farmer you probably picture a man, although there is no reason why it shouldnt be a woman. If you see the word actress, though, you immediately picture a woman because of the form of the word. Another feature of English that might exclude women is the use of "him" to mean "him and her". English has to assign a gender to a pronoun so God has become male, and again women can feel left out. In fact the use of he to refer to God has caused us to treat God as in some way masculine to such an extent that if we use she, people are pulled up sharply by the implication.
This way the language may create sexism in a society. But really, it's more likely that the society made the language sexist, eg using words to put women down like chick, bird etc. (Bird used to refer to men and women, but now it is just derogatory to women). BSL does not have gender pronouns to correspond to he and she, but does this make the deaf community any more or less sexist? Does it mean that Deaf Christians are less likely to perceive God as masculine or male in some way?
It is possible that signers look at the world differently from speakers, because sign languages are visual and spatial. If you think in a language that concentrates on order and space, then you are more likely to look at the world like that. One of the biggest blocks to hearing people learning signed languages (rather than signed versions of spoken languages) is learning to think about the world so that it is spatially organised. Note, though, that hearing people are fully capable of seeing the world spatially - it's just that they aren't used to building space into their language.
We have seen, then, that to some extent, language can have an effect on the way we think.
We need to consider the attitude that some people have towards their own language, and attitudes that other people have. The language that we use can make a big difference to the way that we see ourselves, and the way society sees us. It can also influence the way we relate to society.
Accent is very important in Britain. Advertisers on television only use regional accents for voice-overs if the product is cheap or if the aim is to amuse. Serious things or expensive products use the voices of middle-class men. During the war, the BBC had to use "middle class" speakers the read the news because no one believed the people with regional accents. This has now changed, which goes to show that social factors in languages do vary and change over time. However, not all regional accents have the same social acceptability and "broad" (that is, strong) regional accents are still cannot be too strong for some media broadcasts.
Everyone seems to have an idea what is a "good" language or variety and what is a "bad" one. This opinion is entirely socially conditioned. Sometimes people with power (e.g. governments or schools) decide what is a good or bad language. Sometimes it is just ordinary members of a language community who have these views. Linguistically they are all the same, because they can all communicate in the same way, but they just have different social values.
In the past, many deaf people weren't proud of their language and even denied they used it. Now, there is more pride, but many deaf and hearing people still think it is not a "good" language, or that English is in some way "better". English is not "better" than BSL in any way, except that it does have a higher status in British society.
Social context will look at the relationship between language and power and attitudes to language. The language that someone uses may influence other people's attitudes towards them. People have fought and died for language (e.g. in medieval times people were accused of heresy for saying that the bible should be translated from Latin into English. In some countries in the world, you can be arrested for speaking a forbidden language).
The history of BSL is closely tied up with power. We can think of some of the abuses of children caught using signing in school. We can think of hearing people telling deaf people that they are stupid because "Deaf English" is influenced by BSL, so it looks like "bad English". Deaf people are often denied access to all sorts of jobs, or roles in society (e.g. serving on juries) just because they don't use English. Hearing people writing in journals and newspapers about deaf people and get it wrong, but deaf people don't get the chance to reply because they feel their English is not up to writing a publishable reply. All these are examples of a language being affected by power.
This is the same for many languages all around the world, for example, minority languages in India. People may think their language is not a good language because it isn't the one taught in schools and isn't used in business. People who use another language make more money and other people respect them, so people want to use that language.
There may be some ways in which the language we use influences people and society. However, it is also possible that:
1) People influence language and language use
We can see this if we look at the way people in different social groups use language differently. Younger people sign differently from older people; people from different regions might use different types of language.
The number of deaf people in a society affects the language. In Britain, BSL has survived so well because about 10% of deaf people come from deaf families, so children from hearing families learn from them, and the language is passed on. This core 10% is very important to BSL. But not all languages are the same because not all societies are the same. In other countries, there is no central deaf community, so the language is very different. For example, in Nicaragua it would appear that there is almost no genetic deafness, which means that no deaf children learn sign language from their parents. (We will come back to Nicaragua later in the course). In other societies (like in the old Martha's Vineyard, or in Yucatan in Mexico or Bali in Indonesia) where there are many deaf people, the language is much stronger. There is a slum area in Mexico City where there is a very high incidence of deafness. These shanty-town people are very poor and never go to school, and are too poor even to go to a deaf club but they have their own dialect of Mexican sign language because they all live nearby and there are so many of them. We can see that the number of deaf people and their social situation affects the language that they use.
Power also comes in here when we discuss the influence of people and society upon a language: if you have power, you can manipulate the language to suit you. This is important here for sign languages. This is not always a bad thing. Think about De L'Epee and the power he had over French sign language. Think about the responsibility of people who shape language e.g. BSLTA, or the people who made the BSL English dictionary. In the past in Britain, the missioners had a great deal of social importance, and their signing was respected. In the early 1980s, the production team of the BBC's See Hear! had power to decide that signing had to be accompanied by speech, even though many deaf people disagreed. In other ways, deaf people have always had some power over their language because they have been the ones who use it every day.
READING: I strongly recommend that you read Chapter 9 in Wardhaugh (pages 218 to 238) to complement this session. Try to relate what you read to your knowledge and understanding of BSL.
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