BSL in its Social Context

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Session 3: Formality Registers

Some communities use very different forms of the same language in different social situations.  When two different varieties of the same language are used, it is called diglossia.

In "pure" diglossia (first proposed by a linguist named Ferguson), the two language varieties are similar, and used in separate situations that are understood by language users.  In bilingual situations, the two languages are recognised as being separate and different and their functions are not so rigidly defined, and often the speakers are not aware that they are switching between the two.

One example of a diglossic language community has been seen in Greece, where classical Greek has been used for education and high-status occasions, (called "high" variety or "H") and a vernacular for home situations (called "low" variety or "L").  This split is less clear now than it used to be because the languages are changing and the "H" variety is used much less now.  There are several other languages where this has been described (eg in Arabic and Swiss German).  In some cases the grammar is the same for both varieties but the vocabulary is different, and in others the grammar is different but many words are the same in both varieties.  Importantly, though, the speakers believe that they are using two varieties of the same language.

The original definition of diglossia (proposed by Ferguson in the 1950s) does not allow the two varieties to be two different languages, or two registers of the same language (we will talk about registers later.  For now we can accept that they are the shifts one makes to match all sorts of different social situations).  So the two varieties must be quite different from each other but not too different!  The members of the language community must also believe that the two are different.

Since then, other people have suggested that two totally different languages can be used for the same reasons, just as the two varieties are used in diglossia.  In other words, you use two completely different languages in H and L situations, rather than two varieties of the same language (this was proposed by Fishman in the 1970s).  This is remarkably common in many countries around the world.  We may also even see it in Britain among communities for whom English is not their dominant language.

Often, there is no obvious dividing line between the two varieties, so features of H can be seen in L, and features of L can be seen in H.  Often the High variety "leaks" into the Low variety.   Also, there may be occasions when users deliberately tone down the High variety and use words or phrases or grammar from the Low variety. 

Also, Ferguson's theory of diglossia only allows you to use two varieties.  Why only two?  Why not three or four?  In some countries, it is possible to use three languages in three types of situations.  In Kenya English is used for academic, university, civil service, church, etc; Swahili for business, local government, some broadcasting, secondary schools etc; and a local language like Ateso for everyday, market-shopping, small radio stations, primary schools.)

?  Pause and make sure that you are clear what we mean by "bilingualism" and "diglossia".

Let's see if there is evidence of "pure" diglossia, as Ferguson proposed it, in BSL.

Some people say BSL and Signed English (or any national natural sign language, and the signed version of the spoken language) are used in diglossia.  This theory was argued by a linguist named Deuchar in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Other people have thought the same for ASL. 

Deuchar's research was done in the Reading deaf club in the late 1970s.  She observed the signing in the social club and in the deaf church there.  As a result of her research, she claimed that there was evidence for diglossia in the language used in the deaf club.  She identified an H variety of signing for church services and L variety for other socialising in the deaf club.  The H variety used a lot of fingerspelling, and occurred in English word order, and might be called some sort of "signed English".  The L variety used much less fingerspelling and was less influenced by English and showed many more BSL constructions.  We might call this more "strong" BSL.  Note that this means that Deuchar believed she was observing two variants of one language.  Her idea was that everyone was using the same language, but that there were two distinct varieties, and each was used in specific circumstances.

Deuchar's work was very important at the time, but as we look back over twenty years, we might see some problems with it.  Perhaps the biggest problem was that most of her data on the H variety came from the hearing missioner, not from a deaf person.  Another problem is the idea that somehow more "English" BSL is better because it is called "High" and stronger BSL is less good because it is called "Low".  We also know that H varieties are not only used in religious settings, but also on television, at important community meetings, in universities, and so on.  We don't know what she would have seen if she had looked there.  

? What do you think she might have seen if she had investigated the signing on television, at Deaf Club AGMs or in university?  (Remember that this is 1976-1978 - things were very different then!). 

We also know that for true diglossia to exist, all the users of the language community must use the two varieties in the same way, for the same purposes.  Would missioner have used strong BSL when he was not running the services?  Lastly, we need to ask if there really were two different varieties that are clear and separate.  Maybe there is a "sliding scale" of stronger BSL or BSL with more English and Deuchar was just seeing what happened at the two far ends of this line.  We do not know the answers to these questions. 

?  Think about these questions: (there is no "right" or "wrong" answer, but just think about them)

     Are Signed English and Strong BSL two distinct varieties of BSL, to be used in specific situations? (If they are, maybe we are seeing diglossia)

     Are Signed English and Strong BSL two different languages, that are used in specific situations?  (If they are, we are seeing bilingualism)

     Is BSL one language that has many varieties that change according to the situation?  (If it is, then maybe we are seeing something more like "Register", which we will discuss in the next lecture).

We really need to try and decide what we mean by Signed English and BSL.

We know that there is an extreme form of "Signed English" in which everything in English is shown in the signs.  (Everything?  How do we sign a speaker's accent? Let's say that all the grammar and vocabulary of English are signed.)

But where is this vocabulary from?  Most of it is from BSL.  Of course, there is extra vocabulary that BSL doesn't have (eg signs for "and" and "the"), but it uses a lot of BSL vocabulary.   Someone learning "Signed English" has to learn a whole new vocabulary.  So it isn't like written English, or fingerspelling, or Braille or Morse code.  All these can be turned back into English by following a few simple rules.  For example, you only need to learn 26 manual letters, and you can "translate" any fingerspelling into written English (with a bit of practice!).  You can't learn a few rules to "translate" Signed English into English.  So, can we really say that this is "English"?

?  Think about these questions: (again, you will see that there is no "right" or "wrong" answer, but just think about them)

     Should we say that Signed English and BSL are varieties of the same language because they have the same vocabulary? 

     Or should we say they are two different languages because they have different grammar?

     Should we say that Signed English is not English because it has a different vocabulary?

     Or should we say that it is a variety of English because it follows English grammar and English idioms?

     If you only knew BSL, and did not know English, could you understand Signed English?

     If you only knew English, could you understand Signed English?

     If it is neither BSL, nor English, then is it a third language?

Maybe it is not really useful to ask these questions, when we know that languages need not be defined by the grammar or vocabulary.  We know that many languages are seen as separate languages because people think they are different or want to see them as different.  Similarly, very different languages might be seen as the same language because the language community believes this to be true.  Perhaps the signer might think they are using BSL but the audience thinks it is signed English (as we saw in the ASL study mentioned in an earlier session).

So the problem for diglossia is: is "Signed English" a form of BSL that is very heavily influenced by English, or is it a separate language?

Let's imagine that Signed English and BSL are variations of the same language:

If Signed English is just a form of BSL, used in "high" (H) registers, and other "stronger" BSL is used in lower registers (L), then we might have two varieties of sign language used in Britain that might be used in diglossia. 

But, remember, that the varieties are rigidly separated in their use in diglossia.   In other words, H is always used in some situations, and L in others.  Is this true with sign language?  If there is formal BSL, then we have the L variety being used in an H situation, which the theory can't accept.

The problem with diglossia is that it suggests that people only switch between two varieties of language, according to the social situation.  We know, though, that people are constantly changing their language to match the situation, and that there are almost as many varieties of BSL as there are social situations.  This issue is tackled by the idea of "Register" which we will now discuss.

Linguists have known for a long time that the language used by any member of a language community will vary according to the social situation.  The variation of a language according to situation is known by several terms, but we will call it "Register".

The features of register include pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

Register is the way that language varies according to what you are doing.  Your language is different according to :

1.   What you are talking about

2.   Who you are talking to

3.   Why you are talking. 

4.   What mode of communication you are using (eg written, spoken or signed).

5.      Your attitude to the situation.

So register is the language variety that is defined by the situation you are in.

[Dialect is the variety of language used because of who you are i.e. where you are from and what your social background is.   (We will talk more about dialect in the next two sessions)]

? What different things might you be talking about that would make you change the signs or words you used? (eg legal matters, education, deaf politics, lunch, cars, health, linguistics, fishing, world politics)

(Some linguists use the word "register" to mean specialised words used by different groups of people, eg footballers, doctors, wine-makers or linguists.  This is also sometimes called "Jargon".  But this is just a special case of register because here the way you talk is dictated by the thing you are talking about.)

? Who might you be talking to? (eg a child, your Mother, your best friend, your partner, a hearing person who can sign quite well, a hearing person who signs very little, a foreign deaf person, a television audience, an older person, a meeting of 5 colleagues, a room of 50 people etc)

?  Why might you be talking? (to tell a story, to arrest someone, to deliver a lecture, to tell someone off, to make friends, to interview someone, to build up and solidify a friendship, to seduce someone, to ask a favour...)

Attitude to the social situation is different for different people.  You might expect someone to speak more formally, politely, and clearly to someone older.  But if this person has no respect for old people, then the language might be very different.  For some Christians, the language in religious contexts is very formal.  For others, however, informality is a deliberate choice.

Being able to vary your language so you can use the register required is an important part of a language user's skill. 

If you don't have full knowledge of a community and its language, you can't use all its registers.  If you never go to deaf meetings at the deaf club, you cannot use that register in the sign language.  If you never meet deaf children, you will not learn the register used to deaf children, and so on.  If you don't go to church regularly, you won't know church register.

We know that BSL changes according to all these situations.  It isn't always a massive change (not enough to create diglossia), and sometimes it can be quite subtle, but the changes are there.  For much of the time, one easy variable to look at is vocabulary, because people use different signs (and words) in different registers, to mean the same thing.  Different vocabulary is not the only difference, though, as we will see in a minute.

?  Can you think of words/signs that have roughly the same meaning but are only used in certain situations? (eg words or signs with the same basic meaning of "toilet" or "a fool")

?  Pause now and make sure that you are very clear what the idea of "register" means in detail.

One of the ways that language varies in different situations is seen in situations that are more formal or more casual.  We must remember, though, that there is a lot of overlap in registers.  For example, it is possible to speak formally to a child or casually to a child.

We can identify several variables in BSL that change according to formality or less formal situations.

     In more casual BSL the signing space used tends to be larger and more expansive than in formal signing. 

     Casual BSL uses less fingerspelling

     Casual BSL uses a greater variety of non-manual features, including stronger facial expressions. 

     There is less influence from English and the sign vocabulary may contain signs that users know are appropriate to informal conversation, including idiomatic signs and creative metaphors. 

     The signs are less clearly articulated, so that, for example, a two-handed sign may be made with only one hand, and may not be articulated at a specific location on the body, but rather in neutral space. 

     There is greater use of signs that may be considered more like "gesture", for example, a simple shrug, instead of the sign DON'T-KNOW.

        Grammar is more likely to be just non-manual in casual signing, whereas it often has a manual component too in formal signing.

        Clear localisation and use of pointing for grammar is more seen in formal signing.

The Five Clocks

Martin Joos wrote a book called "The 5 Clocks" where he talked about five registers.  Joos said there were five main registers, based on formality.  You might want to read Joos' book for yourself, or there is a very good summary in Zimmer (1989) on your reading list.  Joos’ ideas are especially useful because it is not easy to know what we mean by “formal” and “informal”. 

Joos' little book was written in response to the idea of only two styles in diglossia (H and L) or ideas that there were two ways of speaking (Correctly and Incorrectly).  He believed that there were 5 styles of English usage: intimate, casual, consultative, formal and frozen. (Even that is probably very limited).

He admitted that it was possible to shift from one style to another during any piece of discourse, but that speakers/writers never shifted more than one level - unless for a joke.

1) Consultative Register

This is the one that is used between strangers or distant work colleagues.  In other words, people who do not share the same immediate knowledge.  It is the everyday style of many middle class, middle aged, educated Americans.  The speaker has to supply background information about a topic, and does not presume to be understood without it.  The addressee participates continuously by giving feedback like "oh", "uh-huh", "I see" and "yes".  If the speaker gives too much information, the feedback like "I know" stops it, or if there isn't enough, the addressee's feedback will tell that too.  So there is constant adjusting.

You can't make unannounced swings in topics in consultative style, because you have to assume that background information is not shared.  So, if you want to change the topic, you have to use clear markers that you are doing so, and fill the person in.

This, then, is the sort of BSL that might be used among strangers.

?  What sort of features would we expect to see in a "consultative register" in BSL?

2) Casual Register

This is for friends and acquaintances and insiders.  It is used deliberately to get someone to feel part of a group.   If you use formal style, the person feels an outsider.  It is characterised by two features of "ellipsis" and "slang". 

Slang uses terms that are well known at the time, but are not likely to last long before they drop out of use.  If you use slang (defined this way) you pay the person the compliment of expecting them to know what you mean, so you imply that they are an insider in your group.

Ellipsis is an even more distinguishing feature between consultative and causal language.  You can leave out most weak words from the beginning of a sentence, eg "(It would have) been a good thing if..." or ""(The) coffee's cold".  Some ellipsis is phonological: eg "C'n I help?" vs "Can I help?".  You can also leave out a lot of background information because you assume the other person knows it.   In BSL we can see "ellipsis" when the signer produces signs that are less clearly articulated (eg using fingerspelling without the base hand, or signing something like DUNNO without contact to the head, or non-manually).

Like slang, ellipsis does the addressee the honour of allowing them to fill in the gaps.

This is the sort of BSL you might use down at the deaf club or on the steps of 22 Berkeley Square, chatting with friends. 

? What are the features that we might expect to see in casual BSL?



3) Intimate Register

Here, the speakers give the addressee very little information (this style is usually used between couples or very close friends or family).  The speaker may say something like "Cat?" or "Cold".   This means something to the addressee who only needs this tiny clue to fit immediately into the speaker's thoughts.  "Cat?" might mean "Is the cat out?  It's your job tonight to see that she is".  "Cold" might mean "This coffee is cold".  This is best called "extraction", rather than ellipsis because here, in extraction, you can't recreate the message, because there is no message to recreate.  It just means that the thought is communicated, and you extract the full meaning from it.  Tone of voice will also do the trick here, for example a questioning grunt in the right context might mean "what time is it?" or "will you go?".  In BSL we might get the same thing will a simple questioning facial expression.  Extraction is often needed in BSL because it often assumes context.   For example, two signers might know who is meant by –j-k- and use this sign but another person (e.g. and interpreter) cannot extract the full information, except to say that there is someone, something or somewhere called “JK”

It also uses "jargon".  These are words used by the couple that others don't know, and that no one uses in public.  The slang used in casual register may change quite quickly, but the jargon words in intimate style do not change when they have formed.

This might be seen as the highest compliment possible, because it implies that the addressee knows the speaker perfectly, so is the ultimate insider.

There is no research on intimate BSL.  It is possible, though that signs may be very reduced, and that there is greater reliance on non-manual features.  There are often special "family" signs, or special names for people. We should remember that some signers may not be able to control an intimate family register of BSL because their family used English and they were the only signer.  We should also realise that intimate BSL is more likely to be shared by deaf school friends than intimate English is between hearing school friends because of the history of Deaf education.  This may be changing now, though.

? Can you think of other examples of special signs that you use as part of your "intimate register"?  (Nothing too saucy, please!)

4) Formal Register

This differs from consultative because there is no feedback.  It must be like this if there is a large group (Joos suggests that six may be the biggest number in which consultative style is possible).  The style is designed to inform (consultative does some informing, casual may happen to do so and intimate doesn't do much at all).  Because there is no participation, even the speaker seems to back off and become impersonal.  Pronunciation is very clear, and grammar is full and explicit (no ellipsis), and all background information is clearly given.  Because of all this, it needs forward planning.  Any participation that there might be comes after a long section of uninterrupted discourse.

The defining features of formal style are detachment and cohesion.

Formal BSL may be used in a university lecture or in a report to the BDA from the Chair.  Usually only one person is speaking/signing and there is no interaction.  This might also define the way that people sign on television.  This sort of situation, of course, is unusual in BSL.  Formal signing is not as common an occurrence in BSL as it is in English.

? What are the features that we might expect to see in "formal" BSL?



5) Frozen Register

This is for print and for public performance.  It has it's own worth, detached from the speaker.  There is no participation from anyone else at all.  It is usually very dense so that the reader can re-read and get new things out of it each time.  This means that it is the style found in literature and poetry (and may even be the definition of good literature and poetry).  Literature is any text that a community insists on having repeated intact.  It should not even rely on intonation to give it meaning, but the meaning comes just from the words, and the order they come in.

So the frozen style is the style used in poetry and other texts or chants that never change, and whose importance lies entirely in the words themselves.  In English, we see frozen style in, for example, church services and prayers, and in legal situations such as reading someone their rights when they are arrested.  (For Trekkers, of course, the Captain's introduction: "Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.... " etc, is in frozen register).

Do sign languages have frozen registers?  Probably not in religious senses because in Britain, at least, the words are in English and translated into BSL, and there is no official BSL for ceremonies.  Maybe at some deaf meetings there are certain phrases that are coming to be frozen in BSL.  In other countries, there might be things like prayers that are part of a frozen register.

It is possible that BSL poetry would be counted as part of the frozen register because a poem must always be signed in the same way.

It is interesting to note that frozen registers are seen in many highly literate cultures and in many strongly oral cultures.  BSL might be called an oral language (because it does not have a literature) but the frozen register is not apparent.  This shows again how important it is to think about a society in relation to the language.

There has been very little research carried out on the ideas of register in BSL, and not much more on register in other sign languages (but you could have a look at Carmen Chapa-Baixauli’s MPhil dissertation on register variation in Spanish sign language).  People know that it is important to get the register right, and may have a feel for what is right and what is not, but find it difficult to describe what makes the register appropriate!

There has also been very little research on most registers.  Most research is done on formal or consultative registers, whereas casual is the more common form of signing.   There also needs to be more research on other registers that are not defined by the formal/informal idea.

Readings for Session 3

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This page was last modified November 07, 2000