Are there different accents in sign language?

Much has been written about the prevalence of accent and dialect in sign language.

When it comes to the spoken word, it’s usually relatively easy to pick out where the person you’re talking to comes from, based on their accent. It’s easy to tell whether someone is from Birmingham or London, Liverpool or Newcastle from the words they use and how they pronounce them.

However, like with all languages, BSL also has several regional variations that can give away many cues about the signer’s background, age, and whereabouts they come from.

Such dialects aren’t just limited to BSL. There are regional variations in most sign language systems in everyday use around the world that have developed over time.

As sign language continues to evolve and helps break down inequality to bring people of different cultures and communities together, we take a closer look at accents and dialects in sign language and their significance. 

 

The difference between accent and dialect

Accent and dialect are two separate but distinct components of language. They are used interchangeably and are often confused.

Both are usually influenced by geography or regional variations in the way people speak.

Accent refers to how we pronounce words – it’s a style of pronunciation.

Dialect, on the other hand, is more than just a style of delivery. It relates to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

So, the difference between the way a native of Scotland and someone born and bred in London would say hello is an example of accent – they both say the same word, but it would sound completely different.

And when someone from the south of England says, ‘do you want a cuppa?’ but someone from the north says, ‘fancy a brew?’ that’s an example of dialect. While both phrases mean the same thing – ‘would you like a cup of tea?’ – they are expressed differently, using different words, language and tone.  

When it comes to sign language, while it’s not strictly true that accents exist, regional dialects most certainly do.

Dialects develop when a group of people exaggerate their shared language over time, which creates differences in how they speak and the words they use. They can develop between different age groups, ethnic groups or any distinct subculture.

In sign language, many signers have developed their own dialect depending on how they were taught, but also based on their age, ethnicity, and even whether they’re Deaf or Hearing.

In some cases, different signs used to communicate the same word or message allow people to identify regional language variations. There can also be variations in sign language speed, depending on where the signer is from or even their gender.

 

Reasons why there are dialects in sign language

With more than 100 different sign languages in use across the world, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are so many differences between each system and variations in dialect.

However, it’s interesting to note that BSL, which is the sign language used by most of the UK’s Deaf community, has several regional dialects.

Research has found that Deaf people from different parts of the UK have developed their own distinct signs for words with the same meanings. Across the UK, there are regional differences in the way people sign colours, countries, UK place names and numbers.

The sign concepts for ‘green’, ‘seventeen’, ‘America’ and ‘Birmingham’ all vary significantly across the UK. The BSL Signbank documents all these regional differences and more.

Like with the development of all communications, there is no single, universal form of language that everyone understands.

Different countries and cultures have developed their own words and language, which have evolved spontaneously as the world has changed and become more connected.    

Sign language is no different. It wasn’t created by an individual or single group but has evolved organically between Deaf communities worldwide.

That’s why there are not only more than 100 different forms of sign language in use today but also why there are so many regional variations to a formally recognised system like BSL.

Although BSL is based on the English language, it’s not a direct translation of English.

It uses a vocabulary, grammar and syntax that is different.

The way that people learn signing has also led to the development of regional dialects in sign language.

Evidence from the BSL Corpus project suggests that young Deaf signers tend to use fewer traditional regional signs compared to older deaf signers.

The closure of Deaf schools has also meant that Deaf children now tend to be more dispersed and learn alongside Hearing children in mainstream education settings.

The use of sign language in television programmes and on the internet has also increased, meaning that Deaf people are more regularly exposed to signs in the wider media.

While the Deaf community has always faced barriers when accessing public services, the providers of those services need to take regional dialect variations into account when communicating with the deaf community.

That’s why it’s essential always to use an experienced BSL interpreter who understands the subtle differences between dialects and can help your organisation communicate better with a Deaf audience. It’s also vital to ensure that you make public information available on your website with BSL translation to ensure local Deaf people can easily understand it in their preferred language.

For more information on how Sign Solutions can help you achieve this, give us a call on 0121 447 9620 or email bookings@signsolutions.com.