My PhD research is on British Sign Language and in today’s post I would like to present to you my sign language FAQs, gleaned from exchanges in formal halls, beer gardens, nightclub bathrooms and anywhere else I get into a conversation about my research. If you you’re already familiar with the facts below – congratulations, you are one of the very few! If this is all new to you then you’re certainly not alone and I hope you find this new information interesting and exciting.
Is British Sign Language the same as American Sign Language? Is there just one sign language?
There are two common misconceptions amongst those unfamiliar with the Deaf community or with sign linguistics: the perception that sign languages are mutually intelligible and the belief there is just one sign language that acts as a global language. Actually, there are probably at least as many different sign languages as spoken languages in the world, although it is difficult to estimate due to many sign languages not having received language status in their home countries. As with spoken languages, there can be more than one sign language used within one country so, for example, in Belgium there is French Belgian Sign Language and Flemish Sign Language and in Spain there is Spanish Sign Language and Catalan Sign Language. What surprises many people is that countries that share a spoken language do not necessarily share a sign language. For example, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Ireland all share English as their main spoken language but all have separate and mutually unintelligible sign languages. As with spoken languages, there are sign language families, so, for example, American Sign Language is descended from French Sign Language. It is therefore related to Algerian Sign Language, Philippine Sign Language, Danish Sign Language, Latvian Sign Language and many more sign languages, which also share French Sign Language as an ancestor. So someone fluent in American Sign Language could try to conduct a conversation with someone fluent in Latvian Sign Language and it would be the equivalent of a Portuguese speaker and a Romanian speaker (both Romance languages with common ancestors) trying to talk to each other. There would be some shared ground (some grammar and vocabulary in common, for example) but ultimately you could not say that they were mutually intelligible.
But isn’t British Sign Language just signed English?
There are sign systems like Signing Exact English which are exactly that – signed versions of English. These attempt to convey the grammar and morphology of English through signs and are meant to support the learning of English by Deaf students. However, natural sign languages are unrelated to the local spoken language. Let’s compare English, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL). English has a rigid subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence structure, so if we see a pop princess at her favourite Italian restaurant, we could report to our friends ‘Miley Cyrus ate a pizza’ but not *‘Ate a pizza Miley Cyrus’ and it would mean something entirely different to say *‘A pizza ate Miley Cyrus’. If ASL or BSL were based on English, we would expect to see this same structure. Instead ASL and BSL have a topic-comment (or subject-predicate) sentence structure, where the topic is marked by a particular facial expression and usually starts a sentence. This makes these languages more similar to Chinese or Russian in their sentence structure than to English. There are a host of other ways BSL and ASL differ from English. For example, infinitives do not have a separate particle ‘to’ (so TO-READ is just one sign, not one sign for TO and one for READ). They are also both pro-drop languages and mark verbs for aspect, manner and mood. From these differences, it is clear to see that neither language has been based on English. If you are a monolingual English speaker, learning ASL or BSL requires learning as many new parts of grammar as learning German, Arabic or Chinese.
But what about fingerspelling?
Fingerspelling is one way of communicating with a Deaf person. In BSL and ASL, it is a way of representing the Roman alphabet on your fingers so that you can spell out words (beware though – once again ASL and BSL differ here and have different fingerspelling alphabets). Although it can be a useful way to impart things like one’s name, fingerspelling would be a very long-winded and mentally-draining way to carry out a whole conversation! Also, when we fingerspell we are using English and this immediately puts a native signer at a disadvantage – English is their second language. Many people believe that English must act as a kind of substitute written form of language for BSL. However, due to the fact that there is no established way of writing BSL, and given the differences outlined above, attempting to convey BSL with English text would be the equivalent of conversing in German, but having to write in Japanese kanji.
Isn’t signing just a bit like miming?
Some signs are iconic, meaning they represent an object or action in a very salient way (for example, mimicking the opening of a book for TO-READ in BSL or using the thumb and index finger to represent a beak for BIRD in ASL). However, the majority of signs are not. Where signs are iconic, one could choose many different ways of depicting an object such as ‘bird’, from its beak, to its flight or its feathers – so there has to be a consensus amongst the sign community for the selection of a sign. Also, even if a sign is iconic in its basis we might only be able to recognise the connection between the signifier and the signified if the connection is explained to us. As iconic signs become lexicalised they may go through sign changes (such as change of handshape, location or movement) that slowly reduce their iconicity. Iconicity is also limited to the time and place in which the sign was first lexicalised, so even if the sign remains the same, as time passes the iconicity is far less apparent. For example, the ASL sign for GIRL is based on the bonnet-strings tied under the chins of young girls. When this sign was first lexicalised, this was everyday attire. Nowadays you’re unlikely to see many bonneted girls walking the streets of Manhattan, but the sign remains. Ultimately, if you tried to translate sign languages on the assumption that everything was iconic and was tantamount to miming, you would produce something like this:
I hope that I have managed to bust some of the myths that you might have had about sign languages. Sign languages are fascinating to research, learn and read about. I would encourage everyone to find a course in their local sign language and try it out – it will certainly shake up a lot of your preconceived ideas about languages! If you’re particularly interested in finding out more about BSL, I would recommend The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll.