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American Annals of the Deaf

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To the Lexicon and Beyond: Sociolinguistics in European Deaf Communities

Mieke Van Herreweghe and
Myriam Vermeerbergen, Editors

Part Five
Language Attitudes

Exploring British Experiences of Language and Deafhood in Hypermodernity

Graham H. Turner

This chapter explores some of the ideological underpinnings of younger Deaf people’s language practices and examines their implications in terms of social theory. It also discusses current British Sign Language (BSL) issues through a theoretical lens developed by Monica Heller (1999), which focuses on how we as language users respond to the challenges and constraints of “hypermodernity.” What do BSL users in contemporary Britain think about the language and communicative choices they make? A series of research interviews with British signers between 20 and 29 years of age provides some revealing perspectives with, I maintain, an apparent ideological commonality centering on the willingness to make pragmatic accommodations to external linguistic circumstances. Language choice, in this context, becomes one of many decisions about self-presentation taken on a case-by-case, pragmatic basis as these young Deaf people move through their daily lives.


BSL is the first or preferred language of 50,000–100,000 people in Britain and of still more as a second, or “hobby,” language. It is now firmly identified as a natural language that has evolved through processes of communicative interaction within communities wherever Deaf people were present and that is capable of fulfilling all of the functions of any natural human language (Sutton-Spence and Woll 1999). Nevertheless, this status is insecure, not least because it seeks to overturn a long period of oralist dominance. In 1760 Thomas Braidwood started teaching hard of hearing and deaf pupils in Britain to speak. By 1780, what had started as the tutoring of one boy had grown into a school for twenty students in Edinburgh. Despite the insistence on speech, however, pupils in Braidwood’s first school and others modeled on it learned sign from each other and sometimes from the teachers.1

The underground—rather than open—nature of signing, however, meant that the Milan Congress of 1880 had an impact in England that was very different from its effect in the United States (Lane 1984; Baynton 1996). The London Times editorial of September 28, 1880, for instance, declares, “No more representative body could be collected than that which at Milan has declared for oral teaching of the deaf—and nothing but oral teaching. . . . The resolution was the act of representatives of countries which hereto have countenanced the language of signs. There is virtual unanimity of preference for oral teaching which might seem to overbear the possibility of opposition.” The national organization of Deaf people in Britain, however, supported sign language. At the First National Conference in Great Britain of Adult Deaf and Dumb Missions and Associations, held in London in 1890, Francis Maginn—missioner for Northern Ireland and one of the prime activists in founding the British Deaf and Dumb Association (BDDA)—made an early contribution to the debate: “I wish to correct a wrong impression that has gained some credence amongst the ignorant and unreasoning public, that sign language—the agency through which we interexchange thought and opinion—is calculated to do injury to the intelligence of the deaf and dumb. This language is to the deaf-mute what the German language is to the German, or the French to the French. I contend that the best evidence of the efficacy of the combined system are [sic] the attainments of the deaf-mutes who have profited by it, and that the deaf-mutes of America are far better educated than those of any other country” (Grant 1990, 12).

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