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American Annals of the Deaf

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To the Lexicon and Beyond: Sociolinguistics in European Deaf Communities

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What we see here may suggest a transition among younger Deaf people that is arguably very much in keeping with notions of hypermodernity. I propose that these data may be indicative of “a linguistic minority prepared to abandon the old politics of identity, and hence the problematics of authenticity, in favor of a new pragmatic position which allows them to take advantage of their access to multiple linguistic and cultural resources in order to participate in a globalized economy” (Heller 1999, 5).

We might identify four very broad, twentieth-century phases of Deaf language attitudes (Baker 1992) and ideologies (Woolard 1992; Turner 1999) in Britain, each approximately associated with a different “generation” of Deaf people. The first generation resolutely identifies command of the English language as the “best” or “most respectable” goal. Such an ideological perspective is most commonly associated with older signers. In the formative years of slightly younger signers, manual communication (often in the form of fingerspelling) gained a foothold in education and public consciousness (and policy). For respectability, Deaf people began to look to—or at least use—signed forms that displayed their knowledge of English. As time went by and researchers began to recognize BSL, Deaf people identified it as “best,” in the sense of being emblematic of the authenticating characteristic of politicized Deafhood.

Most recently, as the earlier data suggest, the territory has started to shift away from this focus on language and identity. Younger people reach maturity via a policy climate that is fraught with conflicting and contested discourses about Deafhood, disability, community membership, and language choices—but one that increasingly enables them to do well using whatever linguistic resources they have at their disposal. Thus their language choices become contingent—a means to an end, rather than a profoundly symbolic act, where the end is a matter of economic and lifestyle “success.” Language choice, in this context, becomes one of many decisions about self-presentation taken on a case-by-case, pragmatic basis as people live their daily lives.

Certainly the politics of identity has made young Deaf people sensitive to exclusionary practices, which they by no means condone. However, it seems they are willing to go beyond taking a narrow, rights-based line on communication practices; they do not insist upon using BSL or nothing at all. They appear to be fighting their battles not on the grounds of collective language rights, but on other grounds altogether. They have grander ambitions for themselves, commensurate with their view of Deafhood in the twenty-first century. Their ideologies of language and their language practices are designed to enable them to do well, in terms of both economics and lifestyle, in the hypermodern world.

Insisting upon BSL at all times, it therefore appears, feels to them like asserting a principle to their own detriment. The young Deaf people quoted in this chapter seem to consider themselves at liberty to deploy their linguistic capital in a situated, contextualized, and contingent manner. On their behalf, other (older) Deaf people have generated sociopolitical circumstances in which twenty-first-century Deafhood can be seen as an era ripe with many possibilities, the right to choose is established, and the social and economic promise anticipated in the previous century is materializing. Like the participants in Heller’s Canadian studies, young British Deaf people “have mobilized to enter the modern world in order to enjoy its fruits, not to maintain the marginalized and difficult life which was the basis of their solidarity, but which was not much fun” (1999, 16).


I would like to thank the editors of this volume for their generous support and encouragement. The early part of the chapter was developed with input from Leila Monaghan for a presentation at the 1996 Eleventh Sociolinguistics Symposium in Cardiff, Wales. The discussion of future prospects for BSL draws upon material prepared in conjunction with a European Science Foundation Workshop on Minority Languages in Europe held in Bath, England, in 2001. As senior researcher, I was responsible for fieldwork by Deaf researchers Jen Dodds (funded as part of the Learning and Skills Council/Deafness Support Network project “Emerging from the Chrysalis”) and Helen Phillips in 2001–2002, which generated the data presented in this chapter. No one but the author is responsible for the analyses given here.

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