Users of British Sign Language (BSL) are being faced with unprecedented change in their language
BSL is a rich, naturally evolving language, where the signs used can vary according to where you live and where you went to school. In English, a bread roll, for example, could be called a “bap”, “barm” or “cob”, partly depending on where the speaker grew up. The vocabulary of BSL can also differ depending on your region. However, in the first major study of how BSL is evolving, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers have found that although local dialects still exist, these variations are in decline.
The researchers, based at the ESRC funded Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) at University College London, filmed almost 250 deaf people using BSL from eight cities across the UK to document how the language is used and how it is changing today.
They found that a shift is taking place in the signs used by different generations, as younger people abandon the traditional regional signs that are still in use by older signers. They examined regional variants for three different groups of concepts: those for numbers, colours and countries. These groups of signs showed a high level of variation. For example, the colour purple has 22 different signs. However, the study showed that the use of traditional variants is changing, with signs for countries changing at the fastest rate.
“Our research has confirmed that BSL variation is changing”, says lead researcher Dr Kearsy Cormier. “Some regional signs appear to be in decline, as younger people are using them less. Some sign variants are more widely used than others, while some are rarely used at all.”
One reason that this variation may be in decline is because of the different way deaf children have learned BSL over the generations. “In the past, different varieties of BSL developed separately in the schools for deaf children that used to exist across the country. Schools were the basis of communities of deaf people, just like villages used to be the basis of communities of hearing people”, says Dr Cormier.
The recent closure of deaf schools may have contributed to the reduction in BSL variation, as deaf children are now more dispersed and are more typically mainstreamed alongside children who are not deaf. So they have a very different experience of signing in school compared to deaf children 50 years ago.
Television, telecommunications and the internet may also be playing their part, just as they have done with the English language. As the use of sign language in television programmes and on the internet has increased, deaf people have been exposed to signs in wider use, possibly leading to a loss of local dialects.
It may also have to do with the fact that technological advances are allowing deaf people to move around the country and the world more, meaning that they are exposed to signs from different regions in the UK, and from different sign languages around the world. The study found for example that although there are a number of BSL signs for the USA, most young signers were adopting the American Sign Language sign for the USA.
Some members of the deaf community are concerned about the loss of their traditional signs. “Quite a lot of deaf people are proud of their regional variations, and would see it as a shame if they were lost”, says Dr Cormier. “However, the data we have collected will be recorded for long-term preservation so these signs are not forgotten”.