Mind your sign language
It may be tricky for Americans to understand the British accent, British humour or peculiar British lexicon. But for America’s deaf community, understanding British sign language is even more alien.
Sign language isn’t always a direct replication of spoken language but has its own structures – and these also differ from country to country. “Many people who come to learn sign languages from scratch are initially quite surprised that sign language isn’t a universal worldwide language,” says British Sign tutor Simon Harvey.
English speaking countries may have similar spoken languages, but their sign language differs greatly. American is the most different from British, but Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and BSL (British Sign Language) still have more differences than their spoken word counterparts. Brent Phillips, Director of Language, Partnerships and Innovation at Vicdeaf in Australia, is an Auslan native who lived in Britain for two years: “Auslan evolved from BSL – when British people came on the first fleet and it evolved to Auslan as it is today – it’s about 70% based on BSL.”
The Commonwealth countries have the most similar sign languages. Harvey says: “They’re grouped together into a family known as BANZSL (British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language).” Phillips, who has travelled extensively, says that just like spoken languages, languages like Japanese and Russian are the most different from British.
International differences can be striking. Phillips says: “American sign language is very different – it’s based on French sign language. Their alphabet is one handed, but some other sign-languages are two handed.”
The history of sign language is one of two dominant countries, he explains: England and France. “English sign language spread to the Commonwealth and French to America, which is why it can be more difficult for American and French deaf people to converse with those using the BANZL family.”
In a similar push to make a universal spoken language – Esperanto – there was a move to do the same with sign language in the 1950s, Phillips tells me, but like Esperanto, it didn’t take off. Now, there’s ‘International Sign’ – a lexicon that enables deaf people to understand each other at big events like the Deaflympics: “It’s not a language, but a set of formally recognised signs from around the globe that are visual, easily understood and universally known”, he says.
Another surprising fact is that sign languages have regional dialects. Harvey says: “Even basic signs such as colours and numbers can be signed differently from place to place but it doesn’t take long to begin spotting these variations.” Phillips adds: “For Auslan, the dialects have evolved over the last 200 years. In QLD we have northern dialect with numbers and some colours signed differently, for example.”
“The community would know based on certain signs whether they were from Perth or Sydney.”
Take a look at this AUSLAN sign for water, for example. It involves five fingers in a circle together close to your mouth, with each finger quickly twitching back and forth.
Compare that to this sign for water: just one finger making a circular movement. Both are AUSLAN signs for water, but it depends where in Australia you are as to which sign you’d use. Quite an essential difference in a hot country like down under!
So ‘three red pencils’ may be understood in the spoken language in the States, but sign it in BSL to an American, and you could end up with four green sharpeners instead.