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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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To the Lexicon and Beyond: Sociolinguistics in European Deaf Communities

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As these books were published, so the shift toward the use of BSL in education gained momentum. It had been boosted at the end of the previous decade by the publication of Rueben Conrad’s dry-eyed and highly critical analysis of deaf children’s educational attainments in England (1979), and by the second half of the 1980s, ripples of official or unofficial bilingualism were spreading through educational waters. Progress since that date has been uneven, at best, though inroads toward developing more rounded bilingual services have been made (see Powers, Gregory, and Thoutenhoofd 1998; Brennan 1999, 2003).

In recent years, social and linguistic achievements have been consolidated. Notable landmarks have been the publication of the first bilingual BSL/English Dictionary (Brien 1992) and the appearance in the mid-1990s—for the first time—of Deaf chief executives at both the BDA and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Further political shifts followed (Turner 2002). The country now has a Disability Discrimination Act designed to bring about a fundamental shift in attitudes to service provision in all social and commercial spheres. Nevertheless, to date there has been no parliamentary recognition of BSL as an official language and thus no far-reaching phase of sign-language policy implementation in conjunction with the Deaf community. All that has been offered—via an announcement made on March 18, 2003, indicating that the government now acknowledges that BSL is indeed a language—is a toothless form of recognition that is not backed by any change in BSL’s legal status.3

Yet, the opening up of BSL research has precipitated an ideological shift within the Deaf community in England because the focus of this unprecedented and supportive scientific attention was fixed quite dramatically upon BSL, as opposed to other ways in which Deaf people communicate. Thus, in an article portentously titled “The Renaissance of British Sign Language,” Mary Brennan and Alan Hayhurst—shortly after the first research workshop in England—wrote that “Recognising the real worth of Sign Language is bringing about renewal at various levels within and around the deaf community. We hope that this renewal will develop a true linguistic and cultural renaissance which will benefit both deaf children and the deaf community as a whole” (1980, 2).

In outline, the shift has been away from the identification of BSL as a language “not fit for public usage,” with the English language occupying a position of prestige within the community and its public discourse. These attitudes have been superseded in light of the “legitimization” offered by late-twentieth-century descriptions by scholars, scientists, and community leaders of BSL as a full and rich language in its own right.4


Let me now turn to a key idea in current sociolinguistics in order to explore current BSL issues through a theoretical lens developed by Monica Heller in her studies of French speakers in Canada. Heller is interested in how we as language users respond to hypermodernity, the shift into new sociopolitical structures for the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The notion of hypermodernity is aligned with the idea that we are no longer confined by the boundaries of the nation-state. This allows people to seek economic advantage in a transformed marketplace, redefined by the flow of information and services, by changing their positions (figuratively or physically in terms of relocation): “This is particularly important for linguistic minorities, whose linguistic repertoires have value that is radically different from the value they had when a centralizing nation-state and a primary-resource, extraction-based economy defined it. Linguistic minorities used the logic of ethnic state nationalism to resist that older form of power in order to enter the modern world. That modern world uses a different logic, and so linguistic minorities now have to define themselves in order to retain their economic and political gains, but without losing their legitimacy” (Heller 1999, 4).

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