BSL in its Social Context
We will now begin considering social variations in BSL. In spoken languages, linguists generally expect to find differences according to different social groups within the language community. We can expect possible differences according to the social class of the speaker, their age, their sex, their ethnic identity, their religious identity, and any bilingual situations they might live in. We will look at all these for BSL.
The issue here is not to "teach" different dialect signs, but rather to discuss the trends and features we know about, and to consider why they arise.
Sign linguists need to ask if there is a class distinction in Sign Languages. In order to be able to answer this, we need to decide what we mean by class. In English, decisions are based upon the income of a person, their educational background and the family they come from.
Any sociolinguistics text book will tell you about social class variants in British English, and we will not go into them here. Have a look at Holmes or Wardhaugh, or Trudgill (all on your reading list), or any other book you fancy.
There is no reason, though, why "social class" should have the same defining points for British deaf people as hearing people, when it comes to language. Research has shown that deaf people are more likely to have unskilled and semi-skilled jobs than hearing people, so income is not necessarily a good guideline to dialects. Few members of the deaf community have been able to go to university until very recently, so there is not the same immediate parallel here with hearing people. In American deaf society, however, there is a recognised "social class" of deaf people who have been to Gallaudet. In Britain, it is possible that the educated elite should be those who attended Mary Hare. There has been no formal research into the BSL of Mary Hare alumni.
The most noticeable "social class" distinction in BSL can be based upon family background, depending on whether the signer is from a hearing or a deaf family. Those born to deaf parents are more likely (although by no means certainly) to have an early exposure to a good model of adult BSL. Those born to hearing parents often (although, again, by no means always) only learn BSL when they start school, or even when they leave school. Consequently, those deaf people coming from deaf families are seen as members of a linguistic elite, and we can see evidence of language differences in these groups. Research by Linda Day on adult signers from deaf and hearing families has shown that their signing differs greatly, with deaf signers from deaf families using parts of BSL such as space, mouth patterns and proforms differently from those from hearing families.
Class in hearing community may also have some effect upon BSL, as there are also those who had concerned, educated middle-class parents who tried very hard to teach their children spoken or sign language.
Idiolects of those deprived of BSL
An idiolect is the particular language used by one person. We all have our own idiolects, and each one is subtly different. For most people, though, the differences are easily understood by other users of the language. However, we need to remember that there are some deaf people who never come into contact with other BSL users. There are many children, for example, who have to develop home signing because they have no signing adult role models.
However, most of them either learn some BSL later or grow up to use English. There are some deaf adults who never come into contact with other deaf adults or the only deaf adults they know also do not know any BSL. This is particularly true for those who live in institutions, particularly mental health institutions. They may develop fairly complex signing systems, although we would probably not want to say that these are part of BSL. However, if we say that we are interested in looking at the influence of society upon the language of British deaf people, then we do need to acknowledge this group of people.
Men and Women's Dialect
In most languages women also seem to use language a bit differently from men. There has been a great deal of research in this, especially in the last 30 years. Again, the extent and type of difference is different in different languages. Again, too, the important question is WHY the difference should occur.
Theories to explain differences in English-speaking men and women can focus on the different social status of men and women (women traditionally having a lower social status). Alternatively, they can focus on the different social roles of men and women (women traditionally having a more caring role in society and men being more prone to confrontation and assertion) or the different aims of the conversation (women using language particularly to construct friendships more than men do).
Although there is something useful in many of these theories, the differences described between men and women in English are relatively small. Only very rarely do they result in a complete breakdown in communication between the sexes.
We do need to be aware, however, that the topics discussed by the sexes are different. Research done here at Bristol found that young deaf men and women discussed different topics when they were in casual conversation. This led to a use of different vocabulary. For example, the young men talked about football for much of the time. The young women might have known the vocabulary for football discussion but they did not have cause to use it. This is an important issue for language learners who might not know vocabulary for topics that are regularly discussed by members of the opposite sex.
Turn-taking is also different in men and women signers. The function of apparent interruptions might be different. In womens talk, the interruptions are not really a challenge to take the floor but a supportive reinforcement of what another person has said. This is less common with mens talk. The men do support each other in conversation, but in different ways. The women in this study also provided much more feedback (also known as back-channel responses) than the men.
In some sign languages the differences between men and women's signing are very great, to the extent of mutual intelligibility. This is not the case in BSL, where the lexical differences in the language of men and women are as slight if not more so as they are in English. One theory has proposed that this is because most teachers working with deaf children in primary schools are women and they may be the major source of sign for both boys and girls, so that boys do not have adult male sign role-models at an early age. Whether or not there is anything in this theory, there are certainly plenty of stories of hearing men signing "feminine" forms of sign languages because they were taught only by female sign teachers. This is one good reason why sign tutors need to be aware of sign differences between the sexes.
In Ireland, however, there has been a bigger difference than in Britain because the education system was different. This is also true in Belgium, and a lot of Catholic countries where boys and girls are educated separately.
Le Master and Dwyer found very great differences in the two dialects of Dublin deaf men and women. The two schools of St. Mary's and St. Joseph's used totally different sign vocabulary, to the extent of being unintelligible. When the deaf people left school, they had to learn the different signs to be able to communicate with the opposite sex. The girls tended to adopt the boy's signing, though, rather than the other way. This arose because the girls school stopped using signing and began an oral regime ten years before the boys school. For ten years, the only access to signing was through the boys. The strict segregation between the schools no longer exists, but knowledge of the two forms of ISL still persists. Pat Matthews in Ireland has described some of the differences between male and female signing in ISL.
It is important to realise that these differences are not directly because the signers are male or female. They happened because of the way that one society treated boys and girls differently.
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