Is it still “B”SL if Scotland votes ‘Yes’?

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.

NEW SPEAKERS IN A MULTILINGUAL EUROPE: OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

CALL FOR PAPERS

 

2nd International Symposium

NEW SPEAKERS IN A MULTILINGUAL EUROPE: OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

 

ISCH EU COST Action IS1306
Bernadette O’Rourke, Network Chair, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
Joan Pujolar, Network Vice-Chair, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
20β€’22 November 2014 Barcelona

 

Global social changes are transforming the linguistic ecologies of contemporary societies. They change our linguistic landscapes, our linguistic repertoires and the ways we use languages in everyday life. In fact, what we used to understand by “languages” is also changing, along with the concepts and theories traditionally employed to analyse language use. The β€œNew Speakers in a Multilingual Europe” network invites linguists, social scientists, language activists and language planners to take part in the analysis and debate of these sociolinguistic transformations.

 

The concept of “new speakers” provides one angle from which to investigate the new multilingual realities of contemporary Europe; we propose to explore multilingualism from the perspective of the social actors and their experience of using different languages in their daily lives. We focus especially on the experience of people as they socialize in languages that are not their “native” or “first” language, both synchronically and diachronically (e.g. in different periods of their lives). The concept shifts our focus away from the “native speaker”, a notion which has traditionally dominated linguistic analysis and institutional language policies. In this first phase of this EU COST project, we examine three new speaker profiles:

 

New speakers of regional minority languages
New speakers in the context of immigration
New speakers who adopt new languages for specific work purposes
Deadline for submission of abstracts 30 June 2014
More information at