BSL Dialects Fading Away

British Sign Language (BSL) is used by approximately 125,000 deaf adults and 20,000 children in the UK.  But they don’t all sign the same way. Just as spoken English varies depending on where you are, British Sign Language has regional dialects of its own.  Sometimes, BSL signers from different regions of the UK have to stop and compare completely different signs for the same word!

Signs can even vary between different towns and cities. For example, Manchester has its own unique system of number signs.

Now, however, the BBC reports these sign language dialects are fading away. A recent study of 250 BSL users from across the UK found that younger signers were using fewer of these unique regional signs.

The lead researcher behind the study, Dr Kearsy Cormier, explained her findings to the BBC:

“Some regional signs appear to be in decline, as younger people are using them less, with some rarely used at all. The variation is at the level of vocabulary rather than accent or grammar, and similar examples in English would be plimsolls, daps, sannies, gutties, or pumps for canvas shoes.

There are several possible reasons for the decline. First, prior to the 1940’s, deaf children in British schools were encouraged to lip read and finger spell rather than to sign. BSL was taught “unofficially,” person-to-person, in schools for the deaf. So there was a lot of room for regional signs to spring up, as students at each school signed a little bit differently.

Since the 1970’s, BSL has increasingly been taught as a subject and used as a language of instruction for deaf students, and so it has become more standardized.

Also, many schools for the deaf have closed as resources are now available to mainstream deaf students and allow them to learn alongside their hearing peers.

Third, media such as television is increasingly available in BSL, further contributing to the trend of standardization.

Finally, people move around more than they used to.  So, there is less opportunity for deaf children to grow up signing a regional dialect.

Should the decline of regional sign language dialects be viewed as a tragedy, or as part of a natural language evolution? It depends on who you ask.

Charlie Swinbourne, editor of the Limping Chicken, a popular blog aimed at the deaf and hard of hearing, waxed nostalgic about the different sign language dialects to the BBC:

“Regional variation is something that is part of the richness of the culture and how the language has developed and it is a special thing. When signs start disappearing, or people get older or stop using them, there is a sense of who will keep those variations alive? You feel like it could all change quite quickly and there are people who do try to keep it alive.”

Meanwhile, Paul Redfern, from the British Deaf Association considers it part of the natural evolution of the language:

“The vast majority of people probably don’t really think about it, because it is language, and it is a living language, it is not dead or frozen, and languages change and languages reflect what is happening to you in a contemporary sense.”

What do you think?

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