BSL in its Social Context

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Session 10

Session 10: Language Planning and Standardisation

External changes to languages can occur as a result of deliberate changes.   One possibility is that adults cause the change deliberately.  Adults may use, and teach, the language the way they think it should be used rather than the way they naturally use it.  Some BSL teachers teach BSL that they never use, because they believe it should be like that.

One of the causes of change in sign languages has been language planning.   Language planning happens when a person, or group of people sets out to make formal changes to language use.  It is very common in spoken languages.  Modern Hebrew was formally written and taught to people by a committee; modern Norwegian was written initially by one person (Have a look at the story that was explained to us by Christina Kryvi, a Norwegian students here at the Centre). Portuguese was "tidied" up in the 1950s to make it more regular.  German has recently had some changes made to it. India made a deliberate decision to introduce Hindi as a national language after independence.  Ever since public education of deaf people has existed, hearing people have attempted to alter the language used by deaf people.  Wardhaugh and Fasold (both on your reading list) discuss language planning in some detail.

Even the great sign language enthusiasts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Abbe de L'Epee in France, and Thomas and Edward Gallaudet in America tried to alter the "natural signs" of the deaf children they taught, to match the structure of the spoken language of the country.  This is all part of language planning.

Unfortunately for the language planners, the changes have not been as great as they'd have liked.  Hearing people often try and invent new signs or sign systems for deaf people (e.g. new fingerspelling alphabets or whole new languages e.g. Paget Gorman or Seeing Essential English etc) but these have never been totally accepted. 

?  Why are these not accepted?



However, the planners may introduce things that do become part of the sign languages and this causes some minor changes.  For example, the sign from Paget Gorman for an animal is now used by some BSL signers as the sign ANIMAL.  Other signers use this "animal" sign to mean PAGET GORMAN itself, because the sign is so particularly memorable.


Another cause of language change is standardisation.  The standard form of a language is the one used by the educated elite of the language community and so it has high prestige.  It cuts across regional differences and is an institutionalised norm which can be used in the mass-media, to teach foreigners, etc.  It is usually the form of the language that is written, and has grammars and is found in the dictionary.  Once it has developed it changes very slowly. 

It is by no means clear that there is a standard form of BSL.  Standard English is the language used by the social elite, and is not regionally identifiable.  The BSL of the social elite, however, is regionally marked.  Standard English is the dialect that is taught to second language learners of English; learners of BSL learn local dialects of BSL.  Standard English is written, taught in schools and is validated by being preserved in a dictionary (any words from non-standard forms of English that do make it into dictionaries are clearly marked as being non-standard).  However, there is no written form of BSL, BSL has only recently been taught again in schools, and is not always taught by native users.  The BSL/English dictionary has only recently been published and only contains a limited number of signs.  Standard English is used on television and radio and by government organisations.  BSL on television is not standard and deaf television presenters use different regional signs.  Despite these major differences, there is no doubt that British deaf people recognise BSL as one language.   We have seen that there are certain signs that are accepted as being those one uses across regions.  It is possible that some form of Standard BSL is slowly emerging, but with the social context of BSL being so different from that of English, there is no certainty of the form it will take.

?  Think about the idea of a "standard" dialect of BSL.  Consider the following questions.  If you can answer “Yes” to enough of them, we might be able to say that we have an emerging “Standard” in BSL.  If you cannot see evidence for a standard form, do you think it matters?

1.   Are there standard forms of sign languages? 

2.   Is there a single dialect that is used by the educated elite of the language community?

3.   Is there a single dialect that has high prestige?

4.   Is there a single dialect that cuts across regional differences?

5.   Is there a single dialect that is an institutionalised norm which can be used in the mass-media?

6.   Is there a single dialect that is used to teach "foreigners" (ie, hearing people)?

7.   Is there a single dialect that is written?

8.   Is there a single dialect that is found in the dictionary?

9.   Might there be one in the future?

10. Should there be one?

11. Is there a dialect that isn't a standard yet but you think should be?  Why?

 [The “old” words in English are all from British English.  The “new” words have all been borrowed from America]

Language death and language birth

So far we have talked about relatively small changes in languages.  However, there can be very major changes in a language too.  Most dramatic changes occur when a language dies and when a new language is born.

Language death

Languages are dying at a great rate at the moment.  Langauges die for two main reasons: either the speakers all die or they stop speaking the language and start speaking another one.

All the speakers dying may sound very drastic, especially if you think of English. Probably about 200 million people would need to die before English was even mildly threatened and even then the language would live on in its written form.  However, this can happen with very small communities, because of war, natural disaster or disease.  For example, the Easter Islanders all died after an outbreak of small pox in the last century, and their language died with them.  There are plenty of examples of peoples who were killed either by wars or diseases when the Europeans colonised the Americas, Africa and Australasia.

Much more common today is that the children of speakers of a certain language do not learn that language, but learn another one instead.  Then, when the parents’ generation dies, the language quietly dies with it.  This happened in England when the Cornish language died in the eighteenth century.  There wasn’t some drastic event that killed all the Cornish speakers in Cornwall in one go.  Instead, more and more people spoke English and fewer and fewer people spoke Cornish, until there was only one speaker left.  When she died, Cornish died.  This same pattern is very common, now as speakers of minority languages learn more powerful languages (which are really more use to them, at least economically) instead of the languages of their ancestors.

Interestingly, attempts to kill languages are rarely successful.  “Death by neglect” is much more common than “murder”.  Users of a language that is healthy will do everything they can to keep it going when it is persecuted.   For example, the Basque and Catalan languages in Spain under Franco's rule, or Welsh in the last century were all persecuted languages but their speakers kept them going determinedly.

It is unlikely that BSL will be "murdered".  For a long time, hearing people (and some deaf people!) have tried to prevent deaf people from using sign languages, but the deaf community has fought hard to preserve the language, just as the Basques and Welsh did.  At present, with increased acceptance of BSL in schools, on television, and in the work-place, with more hearing people (including parents of deaf children) learning BSL, I think we are safe to say BSL is too strong to be "killed off".  However, some deaf people are worried that sign languages could die from neglect.  Nobody really expects every signer of BSL to drop dead overnight, but there is a fear that if BSL is not looked after properly, new generations will not learn it, but will learn English instead, so the language will die.  This is an argument that is sometimes used against cochlear implantation of deaf children, and against mainstreaming.

In another way, all languages die as a part of their process of change.   You are not the same person that you were when you were born.  All the cells in your body have died and been replaced over the years.  You haven't noticed this because it has happened very gradually, and a bit at a time, and there was no big moment when all the cells died and were replaced by new ones.  In one way, you are still the same person that you were at birth, but physically you are not.  In the same way, we can say that an old language is totally dead, if it has evolved into something new.  Nobody today speaks Latin, or Old English.  These are both "dead languages".  However, neither of these ever really died in a dramatic sense; they just changed slowly over the years until the new language was so different from the old one that the old one was finally declared "dead".  Old English gradually changed until we got Modern English and Latin is now alive and well but called Italian or Spanish or Portuguese or Romanian (and some other names).   If we follow this argument, we have to say that the BSL that we know today will probably "die" because no-one will understand or use the language that we use in the 1990s.  But, perhaps in 1,000 years time, sign language users will be able to look back at the BSL of today, and see how it came to produce their language.

Language Birth

We have seen that languages can die, and also that language death is part of a natural "life cycle" process of languages, because languages are also born.  There is the slow, undramatic development of a language, as we see in English, or BSL today.  There are also moments of language birth that are much quicker (and more exciting), but linguistics doesn't always recognise them, because linguists can't always tell when something is a new language and when its just a dialect variation of the old language.  For this reason, many linguists will tell you that languages are dying out today, faster than ever before, and soon there will only be a few languages in the world.  True, many African, Australian and Asian languages are disappearing, but languages are diversifying too.   One of the main sources of new languages are pidgins and creoles, which arise out of "lingua francas".

People speaking different languages often meet.  When they do, there are several ways they can understand each other.  One of them might speak the other's language as well eg British person knows ASL and BSL and meets an American who only knows ASL, then they use ASL.   Or might use an interpreter who knows both languages.  Or they might use a 3rd language they both know.

eg Irish person meets Portuguese; Irish knows no Portuguese and the Portuguese knows no English, but they both know Greek, so they speak Greek.  ie Greek is the Lingua Franca.

Lingua Franca is one language used by people who all know different languages.   It often is not the native language of any of the people involved.  It can be any language.  That is, a lingua franca is a role that any language can play.

Lingua Franca may serve very small groups eg Bristol University, or it may be on a national level eg in USA everyone speaks English so immigrants learn English, or on a world level eg almost everywhere you go in the world, you will find someone who can speak a little bit of English.

There are 3 main possibilities

a) It might be a language that some people have as a native language.  eg  The reason it is called Lingua Franca is because in the middle ages, Provencal French was used by many people in Europe when they traded (Franca=French).  Sometimes it becomes a native language eg Swahili was a lingua franca, but is now a native lang.  In the old Soviet Union, Russian was a lingua franca.  Today English is increasingly being used as lingua franca around the world.

b)  It might be a language that no-one uses any more.  For a long time, Latin was a lingua franca in Europe, even after there were no communities left who used it everyday. 

c)  It might be a made up language, made specially to be a lingua franca.  Making up languages was big business in 19th Century Europe. In spoken languages, the most famous one is Esperanto.  The aim was to make it the second language of European civilisation - it never really was to be global because it was based on Latin and German words and grammar, so other languages eg Chinese or Tagalog were nothing like it.  It has become quite widespread, but has never fulfilled all the promises that its maker (and his followers) hoped for.  Esperanto still struggles on and there are hundreds of thousands of people who know it, but it will never become a world lingua franca.

In USA, the Indians used to use a sign lingua franca called Plains sign language.   Used it when tribes met.  Some white people thought it was universal and took Indians to meet deaf children.

Gestuno, is an artificial lingua franca.  It was made up.  It can be thought of as a "new language".  It was designed by WFD for deaf people who met at international conferences.  It was largely based on ASL and uses the ASL alphabet.  It is only a collection of vocabulary, which is based on spoken language words, and the translations are given in only a few western European languages and there is no grammar.  There are only 1,500 signs in it.  The signs are for business meetings only, not for social purposes.  It is listed in a book, but is not widely used by deaf people.  Very few deaf know it.  At the WFD conference in Bulgaria in 1979 WFD trained an interpreter in it, and no-one understood because no-one else knew it, and there was no facial expression, or anything, and the interpreter used Bulgarian word order.  Why has it failed?

Gestuno was designed as an artificial alternative language and had all the problems to overcome that Esperanto had.  It also wasn't really needed, because signers can also make use of International Signing.  International signing is not a true "lingua franca" because it is not (yet) a discrete language, but a mixture of languages.  In fact, it doesn't really make sense to call international signing one language, but perhaps more a way of signing.  When deaf people from foreign countries meet, they sign in a certain way, but the vocabulary is often very different, depending on what country they're from, and what languages they know.  Perhaps in time, the International signing that European Deaf people use when they meet will become fixed and known as "European International Sign Language".  If that happens, we will have a new sign language.

People have often said that international signing is a pidgin.  Let's consider pidgins and see if international sign is a pidgin.

Pidgins are languages that develop when people with two or more languages come into contact and do not already have a language that can work as a lingua franca.  When this happens, a new language develops that has features of the parent languages. 

The pidgin then acts as a Lingua Franca.  All pidgins are (or were) Lingua Francas, although not all Lingua Francas are pidgins.

Pidgins have special linguistic features and sociolinguistic features.  You cannot define a pidgin by one particular feature, but if it fulfils enough of the points, you can say it is a pidgin.

People used to say that sign languages were pidgins, by which they meant that they were impoverished languages, that is, had small vocabularies and very basic grammar (oops!).  They did not look at the sociolinguistic contexts and they did not really know what they were looking at anyway!  All they were doing was trying to compare what they understood with the spoken language that they knew.   This was not a scientific approach, and left sign languages with a bad name, for no good reason.

International sign can be seen to be a pidgin for many reasons.  It is not one language ie it is not something that can really be linguistically defined and many international signing conversations would be unintelligible to other signers who use some form of international singing themselves, but it arises in a given sociolinguistic situation.  The international sign used by European deaf is different from that used by deaf in the middle east.  In Scandinavia, deaf use a sign language together that has signs from all the Scandinavian sign languages.   This may be a lingua franca because it is a well-established language, with related parent languages.

What is international sign?  lexicon (vocabulary) may be:

1) mime,

2) international gestures that everyone knows, and maybe borrowed from another language or maybe not

3) signs made up for that encounter only and with meaning only for that context.

Signs are related to culture of the people involved eg DOG does it bite or is it a pet?  How do you point to someone without offending them because of their culture etc.

Many signs are already often similar because some sign languages are related.   Often the person using international sign uses high % of their own language sign. eg Bencie Woll's study (in the reference list) found up to 70% of signs by BSL user were BSL signs.

Can use own sign with mime or several varieties of own, including ones that feel most iconic, or own sign and sign from another language.  Or paraphrase new ideas or terminology.

The grammar is often very similar.  This might be because of:

 a) Historical links?  

b) Contact between sign languages?  (note: in Woll's study, the person who found it hardest was from Asia, also ASL signers, but Europeans found it easiest) 

c) Natural sign language grammar because of space the way space is used in a visual medium? (note: people with good English and not Strong deaf signing found this harder than people who used strong deaf signing, with all the visual grammar). 

d) Is it a reduction to basic universals of language? (like we see in Creoles)

There has been a lot of debate about whether there is something called "pidgin sign English" - this would occur when someone knowing no signs met someone knowing no English.  This pure situation is unlikely if the signer is a mentally competent adult that it is hardly worth considering.

Woodward (1973) said it should be PSE because it showed linguistic features of some pidgins eg "loss" of inflections, and using grammatical structure of one language and the vocabulary of another.  But really, he did his research on all sorts of signers (deaf and hearing) and didn't really know what he was looking at!  We will look at this more in the next session when we look at the outcome of language contact.


Usually pidgins don't live long and people adopt another language.  But sometimes something else grow out of them.  eg In 1066 the Normans spoke Norse French and the English spoke Old English, so a pidgin arose, and the ancestor of Modern English developed.   Some people say this was a Creole.

Definitions of Creoles are even harder than pidgins, but one very strict definition is that Creoles are pidgins which are someone's first language.  ie there are native Creole users, but no native pidgin users.

Parents may use pidgin together, or at least it is around in the language community, but children growing up surrounded by it change it and enrich it and apply their own linguistic rules.  Part of the definition is purely social: if children grow up speaking it as their first language, it is a Creole, even if it doesn't look much different from some established pidgins.  (Note, it is possible for a pidgin to continue for many generations, so long as users have another native language, it does not become a Creole automatically)

There have been suggestions that sign languages are Creoles.  Fischer (1978) suggested ASL was a Creole.  She said it was a mixture of Old French sign language and the sign language that was in America before Gallaudet and Clerc arrived.

Another possibility is that, maybe deaf children of hearing parents use a Creole.   Maybe their parents or teachers learn a pidgin and as they grow up, they creolise it.  There is then a continuum between this creolised sign language and the established sign language that deaf families pass down the generations.

Sign languages do have many features like Creoles but many of these features are social similarities like low status.  Fischer describes a language called ZZZ, and you think she is talking about ASL, but then you realise she means Haitian Creole.

The most exciting recent development in the area of language birth recently has been the description of the birth of an entire sign language in Nicaragua.

Readings for Session 10


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This page was last modified November 07, 2000