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Review of  The Linguistics of British Sign Language

Reviewer: Hilary Young
Book Title: The Linguistics of British Sign Language
Book Author: Rachel Sutton-Spence Bencie Woll
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Issue Number: 12.237

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Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll (2000) The
Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Linguistics of British Sign Language is an introduction to the
structure of BSL and to basic linguistic concepts as they pertain to the
language. It is aimed at (hearing) students of BSL and does not presume
any previous knowledge of the language, of signed languages in general, or
of linguistics. Its 14 chapters cover a wide range of topics, from the use
of classifiers to socially unacceptable signs, and every chapter ends with
a series of exercises and recommendations for further reading.

In chapter 1, Linguistics and Sign Linguistics, the authors discuss basic
linguistic questions such as 'what does it mean to know a language?', and
show that BSL is a natural human language not unlike spoken varieties.
The arguments presented are not specific to BSL but support the linguistic
status of all signed languages.

Chapter 2 discusses the social context of BSL: how it varies by age,
social class, gender, ethnicity, religion, region and social situation.
For example, the authors claim that there are significant differences in
the BSL signing of older vs. younger speakers. This is due to the fact
that most deaf children have hearing parents, and therefore do not learn
BSL from their parents. Differences in education over the years are an
additional factor. Diachronic change and attitudes toward BSL are also

Chapter 3 deals with basic syntactic properties of BSL. It discusses, for
example, sign order and the classifier system. Chapter 4 describes how to
form questions (yes/no and wh) and how to indicate negation. Much
attention is paid to the role of facial expression in questioning and
negating. In chapter 5, non-manual features (such as facial expression)
and their role are described in more detail.

Chapter 6 introduces the concept of a morpheme and discusses the
morphology of BSL. The plural, for example, is presented in great detail.
First the English plural morpheme is described, then the ways of marking
the plural in BSL (repeating the sign in different locations, using a
quantifier, using a pronoun, etc.) are discussed. Other morphology
relevant to grammatical class is also described.

Aspect, manner and mood are the topic of chapter 7. First, since this
book is not written for linguists, tense, aspect, and mood, are defined.
The authors then argue that BSL does not have a tense system, but are
careful to explain that this does not detract from its status as a
language. BSL does have a complex aspectual system, which is described
briefly. For example, the repetition of movement in a sign can indicate
how long an event lasted. 'Short, fast repetition of the sign WAIT would
be translated into English as wait for a long time. Slower repetition of
the sign WAIT, with even larger movement, would be translated into English
as wait for an extremely long time' (p. 119).

In chapter 8, verb types are discussed. BSL verbs are classified as plain,
agreement, or spatial depending on the information they can include.
Agreement verbs include details about the person and number of the subject
and object. Spatial verbs do not inflect for person or number, but often
provide information about the path, location and speed of the action.
These are also known as classifier verbs. Plain verbs generally do not
mark subject or object, nor do they indicate movement or location (this
information must be provided lexically).

The structure of gestures and signs is discussed in chapter 9. The
component parts of signs are described (handshape, location, movement,
orientation and facial expression), and these are compared to phonemes in
spoken languages. Like phonemes, these components can be combined in many
ways, but there are constraints on possible combinations for any given
language. Next, the issue of arbitrariness and iconicity in signed
languages is discussed. Despite visual motivation, the authors make clear
that BSL consists of conventional symbols, no different from other signed
and spoken languages. Chapter 10 continues this discussion, describing
how BSL signs emerge from visually motivated gestures and then become
conventionalized. The role of metaphor in the creation of BSL signs is
also discussed. Additional methods of word formation are the subject of
Chapter 11. New signs must almost always be visually motivated, but there
are constraints on how new signs can be formed. Another way to create new
BSL signs is to produce two signs simultaneously, and the various
functions of simultaneous signs are described.

Chapter 12 discusses borrowing and the use of name signs. BSL borrows
from English as well as from other signed languages. When borrowing from
English, BSL may use a 'loan translation' - something like a calque - such
that Iceland would consist of the signs for ICE and LAND. Alternately,
the loanword may take a form based on fingerspelling (where the first
letter or first few letters of the English word are usually
fingerspelled). The constraints on this type of borrowing are discussed.
For name signs, a descriptive sign based on a salient attribute of the
person is often used (i.e. TOOTH- BRUSH- MOUSTACHE for Charlie Chaplin).
Another possibility is that names are based on loan translations (i.e.
CHERRY for someone named Jerry). Finally, this chapter examines the
differences between how names are used in BSL vs. hearing English
communities. In BSL, for example, name signs are used only to refer to
people, not to address them.

In chapter 13 socially unacceptable signs are examined. The discussion
includes taboos, insults, expletives, euphemism, and political
correctness. Euphemism is particularly interesting in BSL. It consists
of reducing the visual explicitness of a sign by changing its location,
for example, or by replacing a visually motivated sign with one that is
not. Thus, instead of an iconic sign for 'sex', which is considered too
graphic for many contexts, the word can be fingerspelled.

The extended use of language in BSL is the topic of chapter 14. This
includes a discussion of poetry, humour and story telling. Poetry, for
example, makes use of phonological similarities to other signs to achieve
something like rhyme or alliteration. Like spoken languages, BSL uses
metaphor for poetic and humourous effect. The role of storytelling in BSL
communities is examined, as are the tools a storyteller draws upon in
presenting the narrative.

The Linguistics of British Sign Language will be very useful to
instructors of BSL, although additional materials will certainly be
required since this volume does not offer lists of vocabulary items.
Elements of BSL that may be difficult for students with no linguistic
background to understand, such as its classifier system, are presented
clearly and are well exemplified. Sections of this book may also be
useful to instructors of other signed languages, who could assign readings
on arbitrariness and iconicity in signed languages, for example. In fact
much of this book is not specific to BSL - many structural properties are
shared by ASL and by other signed languages. The role of facial expression
in questions and negation in BSL, for example, seems to be very similar to
that in ASL. In addition, the classifier systems are similar.

Those expecting a detailed linguistic analysis of the structure of BSL,
however, will be disappointed. Sign language linguists will find little
in this volume that they did not already know, and one gets only a hint as
to how BSL differs structurally from other signed languages. But this is
perhaps not a fair criticism of the book since the intent of its authors
was to produce a pedagogical tool rather than a grammar.

Overall, The Linguistics of British Sign Language is well written and
includes an interesting range of topics. Linguistic concepts are
introduced simply and clearly, making the book useful for beginning
students of BSL.

- ------------

Hilary Young is a graduate student at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
She has taken courses in American Sign Language and has done unpublished
research on causation in ASL. Her primary area of research, however, is
the Chiac variety of Acadian French spoken in eastern Canada.


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