Emily Howlett: Who owns sign language, anyway?

Posted on July 28, 2016

I’m going to talk about sign language.

Is it ironic to say that? Can I actually ‘talk’ about a signed language? I think I can; I can describe handshapes, history, meanings and structure. Using only my mouth and not my hands (resist the innuendo… resist!) I’d be limited, but I could give a fairly good description or discussion of sign language without using a single sign.

It’s the same with spoken English – I can describe it quite effectively using sign language, but I’ll eventually come up against something intangible that I can’t quite explain. How to accurately express the sound of the word ‘shoe’, or the click of a letter K, to someone who doesn’t actually have a concept of sound in the first place?

Some things just can’t be expressed in a different form. For example, sign language cannot be written down. Those pictures you see, with arrows pointing this way and that to show hand movements – they are in no way a written language. They are cues, educational tools. Brilliant educational tools, that help many people in their journey to learning sign, but they aren’t a fully comprehensive written form of the language. They can’t be. Ever. Because the nature of what makes sign language a sign language is, well, the signs.

So, does that mean sign language can only belong to those who use it, and understand it, in its pure forms?

Here, we have British Sign Language. It is beautiful; everyone says so, and they’re right. It is structured, and unique, with a rich history apparent in every sign.

But we also have SSE, and cued speech, and we have people who are just learning BSL and know how to hold a conversation but aren’t particularly adept or fluent (yet). Are these versions of sign language lesser than BSL? Are they better than BSL because they can bridge different languages? They aren’t necessarily fully formed and structured languages themselves, but they ARE a means of communication which works for many people.

I am currently struggling with the concept of BSL as an untouchable language, unreachable unless you are perfectly fluent and promise never to compromise it. It’s not as if it’s something that smacks me in the face every morning, but every so often conversations or situations, or posts on the internet, seem to bring up a whirlwind of discussion about who ‘owns’ sign language, and what they should and shouldn’t do with it.

Let me give you an example that’s ‘hot right now’; signed songs.

Personally, I don’t believe a signed song can ever truly be a BSL song. I have many variations on why I don’t, but it essentially boils down to this; BSL is a language which doesn’t need sound, and which has a unique structure. Songs, made for those who can hear and appreciate them, require sound, and require a structure which reflects and harmonises with that sound. Take the sound away, and even if you transform the lyrics into perfect and gorgeous, artistic BSL, it isn’t a song anymore. I don’t know what it is. And I’m not sure it’s even BSL anymore, because the signs will have been bent to fit the English lyrics, rather than the song or poetry being created from the signs. But I do believe that it’s definitely art, and that’s definitely allowed.

See, I don’t think that signed songs are a travesty, or an attack on BSL. I think they are wonderful. Yes, even the bad ones where people studying Level 1 or Level 2 BSL struggle their way through ‘I Have A Dream’ or that bloody thing from Frozen. It is a fun and engaging way of learning a language – and I don’t believe it harms BSL at all, as long as it isn’t presented as ‘a song in BSL’. And then there’s the signed song artists, who create heartbreakingly beautiful masterpieces that can really resonate with individuals and connect communities – as all great art should.

BSL is evolving, as all languages do, to keep up with society. There was no sign for ‘iPhone’ twenty years ago, because there was no need. The sign for ‘phone’ itself has changed along with the technology; from an old two handed winder, to the traditional thumb and finger, to today’s closed fist mobile sign. And I’m not sure why anybody would complain about that kind of progression, even though I see several people doing so.

I COMPLETELY understand that BSL is sometimes at risk. Particularly with the emphasis of modern medicine and technology on ‘fixing’ deafness, there is a real danger of signed languages becoming more and more of a minority. And we definitely shouldn’t let that happen. BSL is beautiful, and useful, and has totally earned a higher place in society than it currently holds.

I just wonder if, sometimes, maybe, by being so protective of it, we’re actually doing it more damage than good. There is a huge range of deafness, from slightly hearing impaired to profoundly Deaf, and we should all be able to access a language that helps us and liberates us.

Does that mean we all have to go full BSL or bust?

Or is there room for all the stages and individual expressions of sign in between?

Maybe I’m not talking about sign language after all. Maybe I’m actually just talking about communication, expression and connection. And nobody has the right to belittle anyone else for the way they do those things… right?

Emily Howlett is a regular writer for this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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