Changing signs for the Queen's speech

Sign language (Image: DCAL) 6 May 2011

The use of British Sign Language on television for Deaf viewers is increasing, moving towards a "Received Pronunciation" on screen, shows research – thanks to the Queen’s Christmas speech.

This week is Deaf Awareness Week, promoting the different ways deaf and hard of hearing people communicate. One of the foremost ways of communicating is British Sign Language (BSL), the preferred language of approximately 60,000 Deaf people in the UK.

The Queen’s Christmas speech has been translated for Deaf viewers since 1981, and Frances Elton at the ESRC-funded Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) has examined how it has been translated to BSL over the period 1981-2009.

In the first years the translation was provided by a hearing interpreter who translated into Sign Supported English (SSE). This is not a language in itself, but basically English with BSL signs following the words and syntax closely, in the same order as the words would be spoken in English.

At this time British Sign Language was regarded as an inferior system and it was not recognised as a real language. In contrast to SSE, BSL is structured differently from English with its own grammar and syntax. For example, instead of saying "what is your name?" you would sign "your name what?".

The research shows that the interpreting changed significantly over the period, particularly during 1985 and 1986 where a mix of BSL and SSE was used. From 1987 onwards the speeches were translated into BSL, and Deaf translators were increasingly used.

As the translators were mostly Scottish with a few English people, a mix of Scottish and South East England sign varieties were gradually introduced into the translation, and this has remained as an important influence in 'television signing'.

The study highlights how the attitudes to using BSL on television have changed, as well as the influence translators have on establishing a "Received Pronunciation" of BSL.

Frances Elton:
Changing the way we sign: an analysis of the signing style used by translators in the Queen's Christmas speech since the 1980s