The end of my study at UCL is fast approaching. I’m currently finishing up my dissertation project, an exploration of how fingerspelling in BSL can become “nativised” (more “sign-like”), and an analysis of what kinds of fingerspelling Deaf community members across the UK are actually using, based on narratives and conversations in the BSL Corpus. If it’s accepted, I’ll blog about my findings later in the year.
Fingerspelling is a representation of a writing system. The presence of written foreign language elements in a signed language is interesting on many levels, but problematic for some. Just like the dusty “Immortals” in the Académie française who presumably feel vindicated now that the Walkman brand of personal music players has died off, and German complaints about Überfremdung (“over-foreignness”) in the face of the spread of “Denglisch“, there are occasional pockets of resistance in the British Deaf community to signs which have a perceived “hearing” (English) influence.
These anxieties are fully understandable if looked at in terms of oppression or privilege. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that English has one of the largest vocabularies in the world but is also the preferred language of some of the most invasive and destructive empire-building nations in history. Likewise, it is difficult to formulate a decent explanation of the British “Deaf identity” without acknowledging the role of hearing English-users as oppressors who insist that specific articulators and receptors are used in the production of language. Nonetheless, language mixing is inevitable for all but the most repressive of societies. It is arguably proof that a language is alive and thriving.
An example from my own experience is meeting a Deaf man who used his own idiolectic sign to represent the concept of “community”. The typical sign COMMUNITY in BSL has a possible written English influence: the dominant handshape is the same as that of the manual alphabet letter C, moving around the handshape frequently used to represent a person (although it’s debatable whether it really represents a C or not – the same handshape occurs in many other signs which have no apparent relationship to English spelling). The individual I met used a modified version which replaced the C-handshape with another person-handshape. When I asked why, I was told rather disdainfully that COMMUNITY is the “wrong sign” because it is “too English”. However, he appeared to have no issue with talking about MOTHERs, MONTHs, YEARs and YOUNG, all of which are so-called Single Manual Letter Signs (SMLSs), indistinguishable when looking at the hands alone from the letters M and Y, and all of which occur more frequently in typical production than COMMUNITY does.
And this is the issue: many of us, deaf or hearing, don’t have much in the way of “meta-linguistic awareness”, a sense of where our language use comes from or how language works. It’s hard work: you can study linguistics for years and still not be absolutely mindful day and night about your own speech. We might expect different standards from professionals, however. As an example, let’s briefly look over this article in the New York Times about the effect of political changes in Myanmar on the Burmese language, including some wild claims about Burmese lexical gaps and an alleged dependency on English, which made me roll my eyes so much I’ve practically sprained them. Let’s pick off just the low-hanging fruit:
- Because it doesn’t have its “own” equivalent one-word term, Burmese has apparently been forced to import the “English word” democracy, a term actually derived from a French coinage which assembled it from bits of Greek some 200 years before English was voted in as the official language of the newly-formed United States. In Azerbaijani it’s demokratiya; Africaans uses demokrasie; Albanian demokraci; Arabic demokratia … I don’t have the energy to cut and paste even up to B. Cross-linguistically then, Burmese is as utterly unremarkable in this regard as English is: it borrowed a word from another culture. It seems that a loan word is only a loan if you remember borrowing it in the first place, regardless of whether you intend to give it back.
- Burmese also apparently has no “native” words for the “English” terms “privacy” (Old French), “federal” (Latin via French), “computer” (Latin via French) and “phone” (Greek). Nor does English, but we coped and apparently understood the underlying concepts well enough to associate them with a handy foreign loan. This is only surprising or remarkable if you don’t know much about your own language.
- It seems utterly perplexing to some people that common folk might have to or just want to explain things using lengthier constructions than a bundled academic or foreign term they’re unaware of or don’t favour. Oh wait, no, that’s just every single creative use of metaphor and simile across the totality of language use since the dawn of time.
- Lastly, the woeful inadequacy of “head-scratching”, “stumped” interpreters and translators is explained at length by a string of people who are not themselves interpreters or translators. Scandalously, according to one bystander, as much as 10% of meaning may apparently be “lost in translation”. Is the implication that speakers of the same language are in a reliable and consistent 100% communion of minds? No, obviously no-one understands exactly the same thing from the same terms: the article even goes on to acknowledge this. Nonetheless, the author seems astonished that “hours” are sometimes required to come up with effective translations. Translation is difficult – who knew?
Language change is inevitable. It’s arguably the best bit. The culture you are celebrating today, the loss of which you fear, was probably an imposition on someone else a century ago. It may be annoying to be told this by an L1 English speaker, but given enough time, the tables will turn on me as well.