BSL in its Social Context

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Unit works
Lecture Notes

Session 1: Relationship between Language and Society

In this session we consider the influence of language upon society and of society upon language.  We look at English and other spoken languages as well as sign languages in order to see what causes variation within a language.


Session 2: Variables in Languages

In this session we consider what varies when a language varies.  We will think about pronunciation, lexicon, idiom, grammar and discourse differences within a language.   We will see which of these variables are useful markers for sign language variance.


Session 3: Formality Registers

This session will introduce the concept of situational variance.  It will briefly outline ideas of diglossia before moving on to Joos' "Five clocks", describing frozen, formal, consultative, casual and intimate registers.  We will discuss the features of these registers as proposed by Joos and how they might be realised in BSL, with special reference to Zimmer's work in ASL.   Generally, features of "casual" and "formal" BSL will be outlined. We will compare the situations in which BSL and English are used to allow relevant registers to be used.


Session 4: Child-Directed, Deaf-Blind, Narrative and Informative Registers

This session takes an alternative view of situational variance, looking at registers as being determined by mode, field and tenor of the situation.  Broadening variance beyond formality, the session focuses on four specific registers.  The features of child-directed and deaf-blind BSL are determined by the status of the conversational partner, while the narrative and informative registers have features dictated by the subject matter and the aim of the signer.


Session 5: Regional Dialect

This session will ask why regional dialects arise and how they are maintained.  It will compare forces for creation and maintenance in English and BSL.  It will consider the role of the British school system for deaf people in the creation of dialects and compare regional dialects with those of sign languages in other countries.  It will describe some of the basic features of research dialectology and consider how traditional field methods of regional dialect data collection can be applied to sign language.  It will consider the findings of recent BSL regional dialect research.


Session 6: Class and Gender

In this first session on social variance in BSL we look at causes of class and gender differences in English and in BSL.  We identify features of English and BSL that serve to identify the speaker/signer as a member of a high social status group and consider different ideas of "class" in the two languages.  The importance of having a deaf or hearing family for signers is emphasised.  Features of men's and women's language are described and accounted for according to the different language and social experiences of men and women.  The situation arising out of the educational system of Ireland before 1970 is considered as an example of extreme gender dialect differences.  Analysis of conversation of women and men friends in BSL shows features of the two gender dialects.


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

This session will explore social variation in BSL further.  Again, it will emphasise the differences in social variation in BSL and English, according to the different social structures of the deaf and hearing communities in Britain today.  The social forces creating Gay Sign Variant will be compared to those that created Polari in the hearing gay community, before the features of GSV are considered.  The reasons for social dialects in English and BSL that arise from ethnic identity will be presented, again with the focus on the different social and language experiences of ethnic (especially Black and Asian) deaf and hearing Britons.  The relationship between ethnic identity and religious identity of community members will be introduced.  The features of and reasons behind identifiable Roman Catholic and Jewish dialects of BSL will be described.


Session 8: Age

This session will introduce students to aspects of language that vary with respect to the signers’ age.  General reference will be made to age differences in language, with respect to identity of younger and older people as well as the social situation in which a community finds itself.  Issues such as dialect levelling over time and the special importance of education in the deaf community will be emphasised.  We will question the relationship between age dialects and language change in preparation for the next session.


Session 9: Language Change

This session will devote itself to the causes and features of language change, most especially from the point of BSL.   We will outline some of the difficulties in documenting changes in BSL.  We will introduce the concepts of “internal” and “external” forces of language change and will then examine the existing records of BSL to see what changes have occurred and why.   The changes in the British manual alphabet will also be described and accounted for.


Session 10: Language Planning and Standardisation

Students will be introduced to the concept of language planning in spoken languages and compare this with language planning in BSL.  Issues surrounding standardisation in spoken and especially written languages will be described, with a particular emphasis on the development of standard English.  Comparison will then be made of the forces behind any possibly standardised form of BSL.  Particular emphasis will be given to the effect of the different social factors that operate in the two languages.




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This page was last modified November 07, 2000