Deaf News: DCAL says Guardian’s ‘politically correct signers’ story was a “misrepresentation” of their research

Posted on October 8, 2012

Earlier, we reported on the Guardian’s story about sign language users becoming more politically correct in the way they use their signs. This has also been reported in the Daily Mail.

However, the way the research has been reported has prompted DCAL (The Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College in London) to write this letter to the editor of the Guardian, which we can exclusively reveal in full below:

Dear Editor:

We would like to thank The Guardian for recently covering our research, and issues relevant to the study of BSL, in the article Signs of the times: deaf community minds its language (08.10.12). We welcome opportunities to bring our research to the attention of the general public. However, your coverage contained a number of inaccuracies, unsupported claims and (most importantly) misrepresentations of our research.

The aim of the BSL Corpus Project, directed by Dr. Adam Schembri and Dr. Kearsy Cormier, was to create a collection of BSL signing and to find how BSL varies and how it is changing, not just in vocabulary but also in aspects of the grammar. The Guardian article uses findings from this research (and observations unrelated to this project) to create a story about political correctness.

The BSL Corpus Project did collect data about signs for 102 concepts from 249 deaf signers from 8 cities across the UK. This included signs for some countries (USA, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Ireland and Italy). However, we did not collect data on signs about Jewish or gay or disabled people.

The explanations given for signs for countries are not accurate and should not be reported as fact. Iconicity is a visual link between the meaning and the form of a sign. As signs change over time this link can become more obscure and explanations of these links are often inaccurate or a matter of conjecture. Furthermore, the actual history behind most signs is unknown.

We have never described BSL as becoming more ‘culturally sensitive’ (to do so would imply that deaf people were insensitive before and there is no evidence of this), but ‘cultural sensitivity’ is touted as a ‘discovery’ that appears to be attributed to our research. The claim that such changes in BSL have ‘caused the deaf community concern’ is also unfounded.

Finally we, as language researchers, are absolutely not concerned about the rate of change of British Sign Language: all languages change and this is a natural process. However, we are concerned about the misrepresentation of academic research to create another ‘story’ about political correctness.


Professor Bencie Woll FBA

Director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL)

Dr Kearsy Cormier (DCAL)

Dr Adam Schembri (La Trobe University, Melbourne)

Directors of the British Sign Language Corpus Project

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