Deaf News: The Guardian publishes correction to “politically correct” sign language story

Posted on January 23, 2013

Back in October, we reported on how the Deafness Cognition and Language Centre (DCAL) had complained about a Guardian article that they said was misleading.

Now, the Guardian has finally admitted that they got it wrong, and the DCAL website  says:

After months of correspondence between DCAL and editors at The Guardian, the newspaper has finally published a correction about the story from 8 October 2012 about politically correct signs in BSL that was misleading in its implied connections with the BSL Corpus Project.

Here is the Guardian’s correction:

• An article about a UK-wide study to track variation and change in British Sign Language referred to changes that had evolved in signs for a variety of concepts. To clarify: the British Sign Language Corpus Project did not collect data about or document changes in signs referring to Jewish and gay people, nor did it provide any evidence of claims made about changes in signs for countries including India, Germany, France and Ireland. A quote attributed to Gwilym Morris was taken from a chain of correspondence and was not intended by him for publication (Signs of the times: deaf community minds its language, 8 October, page 15).

Here is the DCAL letter of complaint:

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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Posted in: deaf news