BSL in its Social Context
The form of a language also varies according to the age of the person. Young people tend to be the innovators of language change. This is true in spoken languages, but there are many things that mark older and younger signers too.
It is important to ask why the language varies.
In spoken English, the reasons for difference between speakers of different ages are not hugely important, and the differences between the two generations are fairly small. They are often limited to slang, and to words that have currency in the person's youth and then lose currency but are retained by the older people. For example, some older people in England still talk about the "gramophone" and "wireless", while younger people would not. On the whole though, there is a reasonable ease of communication between the two generations. The main difference here, then, comes from historical reasons. However, sometimes we might think that an old person is speaking inappropriately if they use a young persons word.
Identity is also important here. Younger people will start to use words that show that they are different from their parents generation. It is a sign that they are independent and can make their own way in the world. There is a pattern in age dialects that show that younger peoples dialect differs quite considerably from older peoples but that as they get older and settle down their dialect becomes more standard again.
In sign languages the differences are often far greater than in powerful "stable" languages such as English, especially because of the breaks in passing the language down through the generations. Some young deaf people claim that they cannot understand the signing of older deaf people. It is possible that a deaf person of 15 will have very great difficulty in understanding the signing of someone in their eighties, and vice versa. We should bear in mind that this sort of language breakdown is seen in many threatened languages in the world. Older and younger generations of the same family can be cut off from each other linguistically for several reasons. BSL is not threatened in the same way, though.
Again, young deaf people have the same natural tendency as young hearing people to create their own identity, that is different from their parents generation. There might also be a physical difference. For example, you may well see that older people use a smaller signing space than younger people. Is this because older people find it less comfortable to move their arms in a large area?
As a very broad generalisation, older deaf people (for example, those over 70) often use very much more fingerspelling and many fewer English mouth patterns than younger deaf people. The overall size of signs used by older people is also usually smaller. Many younger deaf people (for example those under twenty) use a form of BSL that is more heavily influenced by English grammar, and use relatively little fingerspelling. Their signs are often bigger than similar signs used by older signers. Signers from different age groups also use different signs to refer to the same objects.
Many of the differences we see in the signing of deaf signers of different ages are due to three major factors. Firstly, as we have seen, there are few signing deaf parents of deaf children. This means that parents cannot pass the same language on to their children. This break between generations makes for very large changes in the language between generations.
Secondly educational changes have had a very large impact on the signing of deaf people. This is part of the overall concept of language planning that we will discuss later in the course. Before the 1940s, English was taught through lip-reading and fingerspelling, with the result that the fingerspelling of older deaf people is fluent and a dominant feature of their signing. Since the 1940s, the improvements in technology have meant that deaf people can have been expected to use more of their residual hearing to listen to and learn English. Because most schools were residential, deaf children signed together. We know that since the 1970s that there have been increasingly tolerant attitudes towards some use of sign in the class room, and most recently even of BSL. At the same time, residential schools have been closing down and deaf schools have been closed as more deaf children are sent to local mainstream schools. Whatever the effect of this, educationally, we have lost a relatively large signing community of children. It remains to be seen what effect this will have upon the BSL of young people. This is part of the excitement of sociolinguistics: seeing what will happen next.
A third reason for age differences in BSL is change in technology. In linguistics last year, we talked about the way that many signs in BSL reflect some aspect of the appearance of items, or the way they are used. As technology has changed, so have signs changed, to reflect the new appearances or means of operating or handling new appliances. The BSL sign TELEPHONE has changed over time as the telephone has gone from an appliance held in both hands, to one held in one hand, to one that has an aerial and is held in the palm of the hand, rather than being gripped. Similar changes may be seen in signs such as TRAIN, CAMERA and WATCH (the time piece) where technology has changed greatly over the last 70 or 80 years. This same pattern is seen in other sign languages, as well as BSL.
Old signs also die out. For example, signs such as PAWN-BROKER and ALMS are no longer in widespread use, although they are given in a very basic list of signs from 100 years ago. Young people today would not need signs for these ideas, but would need signs such as FAX, LOTTERY or LASER to refer to new inventions.
The American linguist Robin Battison claimed that most fingerspelling innovations came from younger people. In Britain now, we can see younger people making changes to the manual alphabet, especially in the letters L, I and O.
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