Directional Verbs in BSL

What it is about: This project is a corpus-based study of variation and change in the use of directional verbs in BSL, led by researchers at DCAL in collaboration with Dr. Adam Schembri (La Trobe University, Melbourne)

Who to contact: Kearsy Cormier, Jordan Fenlon

For more information:

The aim of this project is to exploit an existing large video dataset of British Sign Language (or ‘BSL’, the language of the British deaf community), collected under the BSL Corpus Project (BSLCP, 2008-2011), and to conduct corpus-based investigations into a unique aspect of its grammar. In BSLCP, data were collected from 249 native and near-native deaf signers of BSL from 8 sites across the United Kingdom. The data are representative of the language community, including a mix of men and women, deaf adults with deaf parents and those with hearing parents, signers who are young and old, and individuals from working and middle class backgrounds as well as different ethnic groups.  The primary aim of the project is to use the data collected to investigate variation and change in the use of directional verbs in BSL. Directional verbs like ASK in BSL move in the signing space between locations associated with, e.g. the person asking and the person being asked. Because these verbs incorporate an element of pointing within them, they are unique to sign languages, yet the way they are used in everyday conversation is not well understood. This project will enable us to relate the use of indicating verbs to social factors, such as a signer's language background, age, region or social class, in order to study how they vary. An understanding of variation in sign languages like BSL is important because of their unique sociolinguistic situations. Only 5-10% of the British deaf community acquires BSL as their first language from signing parents, with the majority of signers learning BSL from deaf peers in schools for deaf children or from friends in early adulthood. As a result of this unusual pattern of language transmission, together with other factors such as the lack of a widely-used writing system, no standard variety of BSL used in education, and extensive contact with the spoken language of the surrounding community, sign language use in the British deaf community exhibits a great deal of variation. Since the 1980s, the increasing use of BSL on television and in a wider variety of social situations means that the language is undergoing rapid change. The greater understanding of directional verbs in BSL as well as their variation and change which will result from this project will lead to improved sign language teaching resources that will more accurately describe how the language is used by a range of subgroups within the British deaf community. Another aim of the current project is to transform part of this video dataset created under BSLCP (2008-2011) into a centralised source of data for ongoing research efforts that aim to understand BSL and sign languages of deaf communities in  general. Advances in technology have made it possible for these video recordings of sign language data to be given linguistic annotations which can be accessed on-line. In the past, the use of analogue video material and the lack of video annotation software did not allow for efficient access to source material when analysing sign language data. Following BSLCP, the first national web-based and publicly accessible collection of BSL video material that can be used for sign language research is now available, and the current project proposes to transform part of this collection into a searchable archive (i.e. a ‘corpus’). A more searchable, accessible BSL Corpus will enable more research on the structure and use of BSL. This will in turn bring about improvements to the training of BSL teachers, sign language interpreters and educators of deaf children. Furthermore, the project also makes possible work comparing BSL with related and unrelated sign and spoken languages elsewhere in the world, and will lead to an improved understanding of human language in general.