Language Standardization and Signed Language Dictionaries

By Johnston, Trevor | Sign Language Studies, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Language Standardization and Signed Language Dictionaries


Johnston, Trevor, Sign Language Studies


The issue of the use of signed language dictionaries in the standardization of signed languages is discussed with reference to the Australian Sign Language (Auslan) dictionaries. First I describe language standardization as broadly understood in the context of written and unwritten languages, on the one hand, and signed and spoken languages on the other. I then describe the distinctive situation of deaf community signed languages and the types of dictionaries that have recently been produced of these languages and the limitations. I detail the structure of the Auslan dictionaries and argue that bilingual, bidirectional dictionaries of this type must be produced first if communities are to encourage language standardization in a meaningful and informed way. I conclude that the Internet provides a means of recording and displaying signed language lexicons in widely dispersed signing communities in a way that may facilitate language standardization in a grassroots manner, rather than being imposed on the community in the form of a prescriptive publication.

THE PRIME MOTIVATION of the sponsors and authors of signed language dictionaries has been, and continues to be, the standardization of the language of deaf communities, variously defined. The deaf communities served in this way may be as small as those residing in individual cities or simply particular religious groups-or as large as the deaf communities of whole nations.1 Of course, it is a moot point whether one should in fact call many of these publications dictionaries at all according to the criteria that some lexicographers expound (Landau 1989). In many cases they are merely word lists that present signs as nothing more than the simple equivalents of particular words. What is worse, many of these signs are neologisms that the sponsors or authors of the dictionaries in question have coined.2

Ironically, regardless of whether the sponsors or authors of these dictionaries have regarded signed languages as bona fide independent languages or as derivative communication systems dependent on spoken languages, the motivation of both camps has overwhelmingly been to standardize the lexicon. One feature of signed languages that linguists, educators, and deaf people themselves have repeatedly reported is the high degree of individual, community, and regional variation in sign vocabulary. The members of local deaf communities have often encouraged dictionary makers in their quest for standardization, even if the input of the groups in each community has often actively undermined consensus and seriously compromised the final product and its acceptance by the wider deaf community.

However, despite these observations, it is also true that not all signed language lexicographers have seen their primary role as implementing language standardization. Some, and I count myself among them, have been motivated by a desire to document a chosen signed language in a dictionary format as, first of all, a community service and resource and, second, as a research tool to assist further investigations into the language.

In order to understand the potential of signed language dictionaries as tools in standardization we need to (1) define the process of language standardization itself, as we generally understand it; (2) identify the role of dictionaries within different types of language communities; and (3) look at the form of signed language dictionaries in this context in order to distinguish between those that are primarily "acts of standardization" and those that are primarily "acts of documentation." Only then can we determine how we might best achieve language standardization in deaf communities and what role dictionaries of these languages might play in this process.

Defining Standardization

Milroy and Milroy define standardization in language as "the suppression of optional variability in a language" (1999, 6)-a process that language communities undergo over a considerable period of time. …

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