BSL in its Social Context

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Session 7: Sexuality, Ethnic and Spoken Language Identity, and Religion

Signs linked to sexuality

The gay communities in many language communities have their own dialect words, and often their own pronunciation.  In Britain, this is especially true for gay men, but rather less so for lesbians. 

?  Pause and ask yourself why we would expect gay people to sign differently from straight people.  Is it because of something physical?  Or is it because they want to show their membership of a community?  Would you expect all gay people to sign the same way, or only members of the gay community? (Note: these are not the same thing)

Some members of the British gay community use language to create a feeling of identity, and to show that they belong to the community.  In English, the use of a gay dialect called "polari" (or "Palare” or various other spellings) was used extensively by gay men, especially in London, before the legalisation of homosexuality in the late 1960s.  The gay men were seen by society as “criminals”, and they needed to feel that they had their own cultural identity.  After homosexuality was legalised, polari became used less.   Maybe this was because more gay people could relax and feel that they were more a part of mainstream identity.   Although the dialect is dying out now, there are many older men who know it well.  Polari was an important dialect for creating social identify and served to make the members of the language community feel like insiders, and to ensure that non-speakers remained outsiders.  There are still some words from polari used regularly in the English used by gay men, and there are many words that would only really be used by gay men because they refer to particular issues in the gay community.  (If you are interested to know more, you can go to and there are several useful websites that you can find by doing a search using “polari”.

The only research on the English of lesbians that I have been able to track down has been remarkable because the researchers were unable to find any features that could mark a clear "lesbian dialect" of English.  There were a few words particular to the lesbian community but not enough to justify calling it a “dialect”.

The pronunciation of some forms of gay men's English can easily be identified as "camp", and we might want to say that this could be part of the gay dialect, too.

A similar "camp" pronunciation of BSL can be used by some gay men in the signing deaf gay community.  We must remember, of course, that not all gay men are camp, or sign in a camp way.  Although research has not revealed a BSL equivalent of polari, research reported by Frances Elton at Durham has identified a dialect that is called GSV (Gay Sign Variant).  This contains many signs that are specific to the gay signing community.  Interestingly, some of these signs seem to be the "opposite" of mainstream BSL signs.  For example, reversing the direction of the palm in BORING, or using the little finger instead of the index finger for signs, such as HEARING.  This might be a parallel to the "backslang" that we see in polari.  Other signs contain a noticable feature of extending the little finger when signing, although probably not enough for us to call it a regular feature of pronunciation.

On this note, we should be aware of the dangers of researching too closely or irresponsibly into gay signing.  Many members of the gay community feel that it is wrong for straight people to use their dialect.  One gay man has told me that some gay men are natural show-offs (!) and like other people to admire their Gay Sign Variant, but do not want them to use the GSV.  There are two signs LESBIAN, but one should be used by straight people, or with straight people, and one sign should only be used by lesbians, because they feel that this is part of their cultural identity.  We need to ask why we are doing our research, if we start making public a form of language that people want to keep for themselves.

Signs Linked To Ethnic Group

?  Before you read any further, pause and ask yourself why there might be differences in signing in different ethnic groups.  Is it because of something physical? Or for historical reasons of isolation from other groups? Or might it be for reasons of social identity?  Is skin colour or country of birth enough to make you sign differently?

In America, there are some dialects of ASL that are easily identifiable as "Black ASL" and others that are clearly "White ASL".  In America, until the 1960s, Black and White children were all educated separately.  This meant that the sign language used in the schools for Black and White children were different.   The deaf clubs also have a tradition of being separate, although they are no longer segregated by law.  This history of segregation has led to language variations based on racial group.  The Black signers often know both the White and Black varieties of sign, while the White signers often only know the White signs.  Black deaf children in the USA were educated in sign long after oralism was used in white schools.

The dialects in BSL used by Black and White signers appear to be less marked, or at least less public.  There were relatively few Black people in Britain until the 1950s, and the deaf children all went to "mixed" deaf schools, where they were often in the minority, so they quickly learned the general "White" dialect of BSL.

This is not to say that British Black and White signers sign exactly the same.   Some Black deaf adults have adopted a style of signing that marks their identity as Black.  Until recently there has not been a strong Black deaf identity in Britain.  People either saw themselves as part of the Black community or the deaf community, but not both.  Perhaps as a strong Black deaf identity grows, a more noticeable Black dialect of BSL will emerge.

The genes for deafness present in the white British deaf community, are not noticeably in the British Afro-Caribbean community.  Consequently there are fewer Black deaf children born to Black deaf parents than there are White deaf children born to White deaf parents.  We have already seen that the passing of BSL down through generations is important.  Perhaps if there were more Black "Deaf" families, we would see a stronger difference between Black and White BSL.

There are genes for deafness present in the British Asian community.  Consequently, there is a relatively high proportion of deafness among British Asians.  The British Asian community is still relatively small and recent.  However, perhaps in time, we will come to see an emerging "Asian" variety of BSL.  This will only happen though, if Asian deaf people see themselves as a single, separate social group.  It is important to realise that “Asian” may be a label that other sectors of British society impose on people from the Asian subcontinent but it may not be a useful label.  Asian people in Britain come from many different countries, have many different home languages and belong to several different religious and cultural groups.  The same is true of Britain’s “Black” population.   Sociolinguistics must be very careful of making divisions or communities where they do not exist.

We must be careful of expecting Deaf people to have signs for things belonging to their ethnic culture.  Ranjit Singh, a Deaf researcher from Leeds University recently explained that there are plenty of signs that we might expect but simply don’t exist.  He said people often expect him to have signs for different sorts of Asian food and clothing but that there are none.

Research is in progress into the lives of Black and Asian deaf people in London.   Perhaps when they report their findings, linguists will have more of an idea of these BSL dialects.  This whole area has enormous practical implications.  Singh and his research team (including Lesley Jones) found that many interpreters were unable to cope with words that are common in Afro-Caribbean English like “hot comb”.  Not only did they not have the signs, but they also did not have the English concepts.

In South Africa, the signer's ethnic identity can have a big effect on the dialect of the signer.  People classified as "Black" and "Coloured" (that is, of mixed race) sign with a dialect that is influenced by ISL (because Irish Dominican nuns founded schools there), as do some White Afrikaners.  Other White people use a sign language related to BSL, because many English speaking Protestant families sent their children to England for education in the past (for example David Wright, the poet).  Black and Coloured deaf children are also more likely to be allowed to sign in school than the White children for whom the education is "better" (that is, the schools are much better funded) and who are mostly taught orally.

Religious groups

There are a few recognisably different dialects in BSL based on religious identity.  Again, there are good reasons for this, especially the education that people had as children or the link that their religious beliefs have with other social groups.

One strong difference in BSL is in Catholic and Protestant signing.  The signing of deaf British Catholics is strongly influenced by Irish Sign Language because Irish monks and nuns provide education for deaf children that is suitable for Catholic beliefs, and Irish-trained priests serve the Catholic communities in Britain.  The Catholic signing uses many initialised signs that are based on the Irish manual alphabet.

Jewish signing has an interesting history.  There used to be a school for Jewish deaf children in London.  Because the Jewish community keeps closely together, Jewish deaf people continued to use this signing after they left school, and did not mix much with gentile deaf people.  After the deaf school closed (in the early 1960s) the Jewish School for the Deaf dialect began to decline and very few people know it now.

The British Jewish school for the Deaf was strongly oral.  However, just before the 2nd World War, several German Jewish deaf children were brought to safety in Britain.  These children were also educated orally, but spoke German.  There was a serious communication problem in the school, and so some signing was permitted in the school.  This signing, though, was used together with spoken language so there are many signs that are either very iconic, or can only be distinguished by the mouth.  For example, the days of the week all have the same sign but the mouth pattern shows which day of the week it is.

Today, younger Jewish deaf people sign very differently from older Jewish deaf people.  Their signing is often the same as “mainstream” BSL used by other people of their age.

Sara Lanesman has done some research on this area and has a paper in preparation on it.

?  What does this tell us about the identity of younger British Jewish Deaf people?

Muslim signing in BSL has never been formally researched. 

?  Why might British Muslims would sign differently from non-Muslim signers?

Certainly Britain's deaf Muslims have their own signs for specifically religious items.  Different religious groups do have special signs that other people from other religions would not normally need.  For example, Jewish deaf people have signs for religious festivals like Channukah, and the Rabbi, and Hindu deaf people have their signs for their different Gods and religious festivals.

Different Spoken Language Identities

In BSL this is not a major feature, as there is only one important national spoken language in Britain, although it is worth remembering that some British deaf people's home language may not be English or BSL but another language (such as Greek or Urdu).  We do not know if this has any effect on the BSL of these signers because there has been no research.  

One recent development has been the plans of some people in Wales to try to develop special features of signing that can be used as a part of signed Welsh, rather than signed English.  Most significantly, they are trying to develop letters for the manual alphabet that represent the special clusters of letters we get in Welsh words e.g. "ll", "ff", “dd” and "ch".  I'm not sure that this is going to be a successful development, but it does show that some people are aware of the effects of different spoken languages, even in BSL

In many other sign languages, however, this is important.  For example there are dialects of ASL that are different depending if the deaf person's family uses English or Spanish.  In Canada, English speaking deaf people use an identifiable version of ASL; French speaking deaf people use a completely different dialect LSQ (Langue de Signes Quebequois).  The two dialects are so different that they could easily be called separate languages.  In Belgium, the sign languages used by the French-speaking community and the Flemish-speaking community are also said to be very different.  In Nigeria, the sign languages are said to vary depending on the main tribal spoken language, as they do in South Africa.  Again, we can see that a social identity is affecting the variety of signing that the people are using: this time the social identity is which spoken language group they come from.


However, we must also be aware of people making mistakes when they say this sort of thing.  Remember, that sign linguists must always be on guard against accepting things just because they sound sensible, rather than checking them for themselves.  Remember the "Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax"?  A South African linguist called Debra Aarons is now investigating whether the sign languages really do vary according to tribal language.  Her evidence so far suggests that the theory is false, and other factors, such as ethnic identity and educational

Readings for Session 7

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This page was last modified November 07, 2000