The Question: If Scotland votes for independence, what happens to British Sign Language? (with BSL translation)

Posted on June 25, 2014



On 18th September this year, Scottish people will vote on whether they want to remain part of Britain, or whether to become independent.

Both sides have been battling hard to persuade people to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, with the debate so far focusing on issues such as the economy, membership of Europe, and whether Scotland would be allowed to keep on using the pound or not.

But for the Deaf community north of the border, there may be a very different question to ponder: what happens to British Sign Language if Scotland stops being a part of Britain?

To watch this article in BSL, signed by Tessa Padden of our supporter Signworld, just click play below:

Of course, Scottish Deaf people wouldn’t start signing any differently following a ‘yes’ vote, but it’s possible that when they stop being part of Britain, they might start to feel that the name of their language – British Sign Language – leaves Scotland out.

BSL is a language that is rich in regional variations, and many of the signs used north of the border are distinct from elsewhere. So, is it possible that Scottish signers could seek to define their variation of British Sign Language as SSL instead – Scottish Sign Language?

LIMPING-THINKERI decided to ask an expert, Professor Graham Turner of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University for his thoughts. Turner is the Chair of Translation and Interpreting Studies at the university, which is now running the first BSL degree course in Scotland. Earlier this year, he memorably took a ‘vow of silence’ and only used BSL for one week.

First off, on the subject of the regional differences in signs used in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK, Turner says:

“There are English Deaf people who say that Scottish BSL is the richest and most complete in the UK. It’s certainly true that a whole series of well-known Scottish Deaf communicators and role-models (Clive Mason, Clark Denmark, Gerry Hughes, Lilian Lawson etc) have shown BSL to be a vivid and dynamic language.”

On the question of whether Scottish Deaf people could start calling the language they use Scottish Sign Language instead, Turner said:

“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 nothing new would need to be developed to achieve that.”

Although it’s possible Scottish signers could turn around and say they use SSL straight after independence, Turner expects any change to happen far more slowly, because BSL already includes the Scottish regional variations in signs:

“In terms of linguistic structures, I would expect BSL to remain more-or-less as united as it has been after the referendum, no matter what the result. Languages change pretty slowly, after all. And as can be seen in the BSL Corpus (http://www.bslcorpusproject.org/, for which Heriot-Watt University was the Scottish partner), there is already significant regional variation in signing, including what are considered distinctly Scottish signs.”

However, he adds:

“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. Will the Scots want to underline their difference by finding and foregrounding markedly Scottish habits of communication? Will English people be inclined to turn their backs on Scotland – an ‘if it wants to be separate, we’ll jolly well make sure it FEELS separate!’ kind of view? In that case, it’s possible that linguistic divisions may harden over time – but we’d be talking generations, not months!”

There are areas where Turner feels Scottish Deaf people could use independence to gain more language rights:

“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.”

Turner feels things could be different in an independent Scotland:

“What we do know is that the Scottish Parliament is due to consider a BSL Bill during 2014 – for once, putting the focus on the language. That should be an encouraging signal that Scotland is moving towards seeing BSL, like Gaelic and Scots, as part of its own cultural heritage, to be treasured and protected.”

So, it’s possible things could be better – in terms of language rights – for Scottish signers in an independent Scotland than they are now.

If Scottish signers did decide to break away, and say that they use SSL, gaining better language rights as a result, where would that leave BSL? Will it start to feel like the poor cousin?

There’s a lot riding on that vote in three months time.

BBC2’s See Hear have an item about Scottish independence in their programme today. To find out more, go to:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b047w8zk

Further reading: Toby Dawson: How the proposed constitution could give deaf people better rights in an independent constitution

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. His short film The Kiss was shown at Bradford International Film Festival in March, and his comedy Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool can now be seen on the BSL Zone by clicking here.

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