Auslan – Who does it belong to?

imagesCARGY3WP“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares.” 

Mark Twain

Who owns Auslan?

Last week a good friend who is deaf visited me from America. He is an Aussie expat and works at Gallaudet. He was never totally immersed in the Australian Deaf community and his Auslan is rudimentary. Since commencing at Gallaudet he has had to become more immersed in the Deaf community. He has had to learn American Sign Language (ASL) and fast. He comes back to Australia every six months or so. Inevitably we catch up for coffee and he shows off his ASL. He demonstrates his dexterity for the one handed alphabet and throws in other signs like good, man, because etc – all in ASL. I am lucky he is easy to lip-read, otherwise I wouldn’t understand a word he says.

He was telling me that at Gallaudet he has a deaf mentor. The mentor and he talk about all things deafness. His mentor apparently mentioned that, even at Gallaudet, there are very few deaf people that use pure sign language. Most, apparently, use a combination of ASL and English. This is also my own observation, that most of the people I know who use Sign Language use a combination of Sign Language and English.

Sign language has a unique set of rules that involve not just signs, but also space and direction and facial expressions. There are also some odd verbalisations. For example the sign that is used to indicate that an explanation or instruction has been understood is signed while at the same time making a sort of sound that goes something like ‘puh’. Even though there are some unique idiosyncrasies related to Sign Language I wonder if Sign Language, in its purist form, actually exists?

Most people that I know, who are part of the Deaf community, did not get introduced to Sign Language until a later in their lives. Their parents were usually given expert advice to teach their kids to speak, to use residual hearing, to not sign and so on and so on. Some of these people struggled in mainstreamed settings and found themselves at a school that provided support to deaf students. The age that they get introduced to a deaf support unit varies. In my case I was 14.

My first introduction to sign language was Signed English in 1978. Signed English was and is horrible and awkward. For those of us who remember – try signing do, done, does, to and it. I guarantee you will feel hand cramps coming on very soon. The biggest issue with Signed English was that many signs made no sense conceptually. I don’t know the theory behind it but some words just do not make sense visually. Buy, by and bye … All sound the same but visually are represented differently. You might be able to use one sound such as BI to represent all those words and the listener will know what you mean based on the context of the conversation but visually it makes no sense at all. If one was to sign, “I went BUY the shops” it would make no sense. This is why with Sign Language the right visual context can be crucial.

Many of these kids from the seventies who were educated with Signed English are now a large part of the Deaf community. As they began to join the Deaf community they brought with them their own versions of Sign Language that had been influenced by their education. Today, I often see smatterings of Signed English intermingled with Auslan. The Sign ‘IT’ is most obvious. In Queensland there are a group that add “S” to the end of words to show the plural. They will sign “DOG” then sign “S” to signify the plural. Horrible as Signed English was and is, it is ironic that some of it has become ingrained into Auslan.

Sign language, like English, is not immune to influence. It evolves and adopts other languages naturally. This includes other sign languages and English. American Signs have become prominent in Auslan for example – politics and parent with the American P are common usages. Then there are new signs that are added all the time, particularly where new technology is involved. In recent years we have added signs like iPad, mobile phone and other computer terminology.

Hell, a segment of the Deaf community didn’t like the sign for disability so they contrived another one so that it was visually more representative. The old sign was sort of like a person hobbling on gimpy legs. This segment of the Deaf community decided this was not fully representative of disability so they changed it. The current sign is one which is a D that runs across the fingers of one hand signifying Disability as several types.

In more recent times segments of the Deaf community have also changed the sign for rights, as in human rights. It used to just be rights – as in the sign right or wrong. Now it is a completely different sign that is almost like one hand making a chopping action across the palm of the other hand.

I am not sure who makes the decision to change these signs. As far as I know there was no think-tank or vote. It seems that some people just decided to change the signs. They then started to use the signs in official settings.  These new signs then became a common part of sign language. The transition to the new signs happened quite naturally. They are now common place.

Who makes the decisions to change or add to a language? Does it just happen naturally? Or is there a sort of arbitrary group that approves the changes? Dr. C. George Boeree in an essay, Language Change and Evolution, notes several influences on language change. These influences can include influences of other languages, idiosyncrasies of individuals, fashion and of course the media. No language is immune, all are open to influence and change. There is no vote of agreement or anything like that. Language just changes and evolves right before our very eyes, and we don’t even know it!

So who owns Sign Languages like Auslan? Is it the Deaf community or is Sign Language owned by all the people that use it? In today’s day and age, teaching Sign Language is a market. People actually pay to learn it. Do these people that learn it have a stake in Auslan? Do the hearing parents of deaf kids that learn Sign Language have some ownership of the language? Do the Governments that use our tax payer money to fund courses or pay for interpreters in our education and employment have some stake in Sign Language?

I wonder if hearing people who have kids who are deaf, and who learn Sign Language make up home signs. I wonder if these home signs then have an influence over the development of Sign Language too. Who is to say that some home sign that a hearing parent made up will not get adopted quite naturally by the Deaf community when their deaf kids become active Deaf community members?

For many years now Deaf Australia have been very territorial about Auslan. Hell, if Deafness Forum so much as mention the word Auslan Deaf Australia are liable to get their knickers in a twist and write a letter of complaint to the Government. They almost seem to be the self- appointed guardians of Auslan. But what happens if Deaf Australia cease to be? This is possible with the way current Government funding is going. Will the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association then become the ’guardians’? Do we need a guardian at all?

I have no answers to these questions. What I do know is that no one owns Sign Languages or any languages for that matter. Sure, Sign Language is the language of the Deaf community but they do not own it. Like all languages Sign Language is owned by the people that use it. It is influenced by the people that use it. The owners of Sign Language are many, and they are not all Deaf, or necessarily part of the Deaf community.

The strength of any language is probably shown by its robustness and adaptability to move with the times. It’s a case of adapt or die and so long as Auslan and any Sign Language can do that it will probably survive. When the Normans invaded England all those hundreds of years ago Dr George Boeree reckons they left behind a “..highly Frenchified English” So it is with Sign Languages, they have become “Highly Englishified”, depending on what the elite spoken language might be.

So who owns Auslan????  Probably not the Deaf community, that much is true. But as Twain says, they probably own the bulk of the shares.  You be the judge.



4 thoughts on “Auslan – Who does it belong to?

  1. I’m just starting my Ph.D in Linguistics and I’ll be focussing on the development of signs in BSL, and some of the questions that you’ve posed here are key ones I hope to answer (or, at least, go partway towards answering). Thank you for posting this, and for the mention of the essay by Dr. George Boeree; I’m sure it’ll come in useful =]

  2. Does anyONE own a language? No — I think we can all agree on that.

    Does a COMMUNITY own a language? To the extent that languages can be “owned”, yes, linguistic communities do own the languages they created and use in their everyday lives.

    Now, who is that linguistic community? The primary users — us, the Deaf. Also the CODAs who also have grown up with the language. And to a lesser degree, interpreters who live with and work with Deaf. And then you have parents of Deaf children and signed language learners.

    But let’s extend your analogy a bit. If this community comprises the “stockholders” of “X signed language corporation” (where X represents the national version of signed language of your choice), then Deaf people, owning the bulk of the “shares” of this “X signed language corporation stock” would constitute the “majority shareholders” of this “corporation”.

    And, as majority shareholders, we have a vested interest in the success of the “corporation”. If we see the “corporation” heading in a direction that we feel is ill-advised at best, and disastrous for the corporation’s continued existence at worst, then don’t we have a right to try to take steps to “correct course”, to see the corporation continue on its proper course as the shareholders see it, to see the corporation keep going in alignment with its original mission?

    We may not “own” our language, but we should take OWNERSHIP of it and make sure that our holdings maintains its value and continues to produce a product that we can be proud to say is ours.

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