Author: Graham H. Turner
Fewer than 100 days remain until Scotland makes a weighty decision – to remain ‘United’ with the rest of the Kingdom’, or to strike out as an independent nation http://www.scotreferendum.com/.
In the background of the democratic process lurk many questions about language. Scots, Americans, Australians and others routinely experience the dissonance of hearing their language called ‘English’. The same problem would start to apply to users of sign language in an independent Scotland – because their language is currently known as ‘British Sign Language’.
So, when we gaze into our crystal ball, what can be foreseen in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote on September 18th? Odd as it may seem, scholars take the view that languages are not defined by their linguistic content, but by their socio-political status: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” as Max Weinreich pithily declared.
So if Scottish signers chose to exert their political muscles, they could start using the term ‘Scottish Sign Language’ tomorrow, if they wanted to, referring to the eloquent and powerful signing they already produce every day – and the language itself wouldn’t need to change one iota.
Strictly in terms of linguistic structures, signing throughout these islands post-referendum is likely to remain more-or-less as united as it has previously been, no matter what the result of the vote. Languages change pretty slowly, after all. And as can be seen in the British Sign Language [BSL] Corpus (for which Heriot-Watt University was the Scottish partner), there is already significant regional variation in signing, including what are considered distinctly Scottish signs. That kind of variation comfortably exists within many languages – including English – without people feeling the need to change their view that ‘it’s all still one language really’.
But politically, things may be different for communities in an independent Scotland. A lot will depend on social attitudes on both sides of the border. It’s possible that linguistic divisions may harden over time – but we’d be talking generations, not months.
The other thing that is crucial is how key aspects of government policy in London and Edinburgh develop after the referendum. I published a paper in 2003 – “On Policies and Prospects for British Sign Language” – saying that one of the problems with making progress in improving BSL’s status is that the UK has always lacked any specific LANGUAGE policy about BSL.
We have policies in health, social care, justice, education etc, all of which have implications for BSL – but nowhere do we take the language itself, and the signing community, as the focus for policy development. The result is the kind of incoherence and inconsistency we see in the Westminster government’s approach to BSL at present. Is that how things will continue if Scotland becomes independent?
Some of the messages are discouraging. Scotland already has autonomy over its education policy (as part of the ‘devolved’ parliamentary arrangements) – but it cannot be said to have transformed the lives of Scottish Deaf young people as a result, as a recent report shows. So we can’t be complacent.
On the other hand, the Scottish Funding Council provides ring-fenced resources which have allowed Heriot-Watt University to create a unique, full-time, 4-year degree course in BSL/English interpreting and to keep recruiting new students every year for the foreseeable future.
So there are encouraging indications. And thanks to Mark Griffin MSP, the Scottish Parliament is due to consider a BSL Bill during 2014 – for once, putting the policy focus squarely on the language. That should be an encouraging signal that Scotland is moving towards seeing its sign language – whatever we call it – as part of its own cultural heritage, like Gaelic and Scots, to be treasured and protected.