“I think we need to speak up for sign language.” Prof Graham Turner talks about his latest Edinburgh Fringe show

Posted on May 23, 2014



After making waves with the show ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’ at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival (which he wrote about for us here) Prof Graham Turner is back this summer with a new show, ‘Speech Sucks: The Future Signs.” He tells us more below!

What’s the inspiration behind the show this time?

I guess the idea for ‘Speech sucks: the future signs’ comes from two directions at once.

First and foremost, as you know, it’s been clear for a long time that sign languages are ‘real and proper’ languages in scientific terms – we can point out the polymorphemic predicates, the intransitive verbs, the referential cohesion and all the rest of it – but those who really appreciate the richness of signing know there’s more to it than this.

Somehow, all of these dry, academic formulations, this dissection of signing, doesn’t get to the beating heart of the language. When you see true eloquence in BSL, it hits you straight between the eyes and makes your hair stand on end, doesn’t it?

Scholarly studies have yet to fathom this out fully. We’ve been so busy proving that sign languages can do what spoken languages do, that we rarely shout about how, in some ways, they can go faaaaar beyond anything speech does. So part of what we want to do is to excite people about the extraordinary power of signing.

Secondly, everyone is getting increasingly overloaded with words these days. For hearing people, it’s in their ears – just count how many have headphones on every morning on the bus – and in their eyes almost 24/7. The internet has made things much worse in this respect. Basically, language is in your face throughout your waking hours. And it’s really wearing people out – it’s like an unstoppable flood, and we’re drowning in it.

I think we need to speak up for sign language. One of the amazing features of signing is that you literally put your whole body into it. For me, that’s incredibly valuable – it means when you sign, you’re expressing yourSELF as a human being in every utterance.

But with speech and writing, slowly but surely, the computers are taking over – automated replies when you phone your bank, Google translate, speech recognition technology becoming more and more widespread. I say, let the machines have English if they want it: give me the beauty and lucidity of BSL any day!

So that’s the idea behind the show. It’ll be an hour long, with most of the time given to the audience for their thoughts and questions. It’ll be fast and fun – led in BSL, but also interpreted in English – an important topic, but not taking itself too seriously on this occasion.

Tell us about your show last year?

We had a blast! You can get a feel for it through this clip http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01jvctb.

Jeff McWhinney, the boss of SignVideo and a friend of mine for over 20 years, and I staged a mock debate about whether all Deaf people should be sent to live on Orkney – either to get rid of them or to live in peace without hearing intrusion, depending on your point of view!

There was a lot of laughter, some pretty dodgy arguments, and a good dose of audience participation. You can read one non-signer’s view here – she nicely captures the lively spirit of the debate!

The general idea for these shows is to bring academics out of their university offices, and get them talking directly with the general public. In my case, I’ve been working with Deaf people for almost 30 years, and I know very well that expertise on BSL is generations-deep within the Deaf community – so to me it is a ‘no-brainer’ that professors like me have a huge amount to learn from Deaf people.

Equally, I know Deaf people are sometimes frustrated that research about BSL isn’t shared with them – it’s a fair criticism, so I keep looking for ways to create spaces like these shows where we can really exchange ideas.

What was the response to that one like?

It was part of the ‘Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas’, a series of one-hour shows running every day in an 80-seat show-tent in the middle of Edinburgh.

They were on a wide range of topics, covering loads of different academic subjects – and out of all of them, ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’ was the most popular of the lot!

But this year, we want to be the first show to sell every ticket – I’ll be joined by my Deaf colleague from Heriot-Watt University, Gary Quinn, and we’ll be looking to stir things up and have a right old ding-dong!

Last year’s feedback said things like “a fun debate which I enjoyed”, “a great event, energising and managed to be controversial and good humoured at the same time” and “enjoyed the show today: wish for more time for more debate & questions! Lovely to see people who I’ve not seen for ages!” I’m sure there’ll be a lot of signing around the cafés of Edinburgh afterwards again this year!

You can see more about the 2014 Cabaret at this link: http://codi2014.beltanenetwork.org/ including seeing our venue, the elegant St. Andrew’s Square. Keep an eye out for the box office opening, because we expect the tickets to sell out fast!

Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival  is MASSIVE – there are hundreds of shows of every possible kind all over the city throughout August. If you’ve been before, you know how much fun it is: if you haven’t been – you should!

‘Speech Sucks: The Future Signs’ takes place on August 6, 2014 @ 3:40 pm – 4:40 pm at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. To buy your ticket, go to: https://www.edfringe.com/whats-on/spoken-word/speech-sucks-the-future-signs

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