Leave my language alone! – Perspectives on Sign Language Standardisation

Hanna Eichmann

University of Central Lancashire, United Kingdom


This paper presents an investigation of the views on sign language standardisation (SLS) among Deaf signers in two European countries, Germany and the UK.

In light of the absence of a codified standard variety in most sign languages, there have been repeated calls for the standardisation of sign languages primarily from outside the Deaf community (Deuchar, 1985). The development of a standard variety has been suggested to facilitate the establishment of a linguistic norm which could enable all members of that linguistic group to gain equal access to education, administration and commerce (Brandhoff 2005).

Although frequently labelled as sociolinguistic enquiry, much of the standardisation and language planning literature displays a certain bias towards investigating the linguistic rather than the social aspects of language (cf. Milroy, 2001). Explicit mentioning of epistemological and sociological-theoretical perspectives is scarce. Taking into account that language teachers fulfil a particular role in the context of language standardisation as they embody the role of ‘norm transmitters’ (cf. Davies and Langer 2006) this study focuses on the ‘socio’ aspect of the subject matter by investigating SLS as a concept from the perspective of Deaf sign language tutors.

My research findings based on in-depths interviews conducted in Germany and the UK and analysed using grounded theory methods (Charmaz, 2006) indicate that in both countries SLS carries different connotations from spoken language standardisation with regard to the conceptualisation of SLS and its socio-political implications. Within the British Deaf community there is a strong resistance to the notion of BSL-standardisation based on the understanding that SLS poses a threat to the language by eradicating regional variation, a highly cherished feature of British Sign Language (BSL). In contrast, the subject matter is looked at much more favourably in Germany, where SLS is generally perceived as a natural, ongoing process accelerated by a number of external factors (e.g. modern communication technologies) and where notions of language purism based on the assumption that a standard variety of DGS will facilitate the development of a more ‘pure’ German Sign Language (Deutsche Gebärdensprache, DGS) devoid of spoken language influences, surface in the context of the SLS-debate. In both countries, however, the concept of SLS is perceived as controversial and socio-politically charged, embodying hearing people’s hegemony in the area of sign language studies, which warrants an exploration of SLS with particular reference to socio-political factors and a problematisation of established language standardisation theory.


Brandhoff, E. (2005) 'Zur Standardisierung von Gebärdensprachen. Die Rolle der Linguistik bei der Ausformung einer Gebärden-Hochsprache'. Das Zeichen, 71 (19), p.448-453

Charmaz, K. (2006) Constructing Grounded TheoryConstructing Grounded Theory, London: Sage

Davies, W. & Langer, N. 2006, The Making of Bad Language Peter Lang, Frankfurt/M.

Deuchar, M. 1984, British Sign Language Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Milroy, J. (2001) 'Language ideologies and the consequences of standardization'. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 5 (4), p.530-555

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 10
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 14