I sat down to watch the first episode of this year’s Love Island with my daughter as I was told that there was a deaf contestant appearing on the show. I don’t usually watch Love Island, but as a deaf person I was intrigued to find out more about how this contestant, Tasha Ghouri, would handle being the only deaf person on the show.
I asked my daughter, who is hearing, whether or not she could hear that Ghouri was deaf – she seemed to be communicating with her hearing peers with complete ease. My daughter replied: “I can hear the deaf in her voice.” This was not surprising, as several members of my family are deaf and I socialise mainly with deaf people. My daughter is highly familiar with what we, deaf people, call, “deaf accent”, also known to researchers as “deaf speech”.
Sadly, a few weeks into the show, there has been a wave of online trolling and abuse directed at Ghouri. Much of this has focused on her cochlear implant – an electronic device that allow some deaf people to hear and process speech (this varies greatly among deaf people) – and her accent.
An accent refers to people’s voice quality, intonation and their pronunciation of both vowels and consonants. In general, people tend to have an accent when speaking that reflects their gender, ethnicity, social class, age and their region or country of origin (among other factors). Other linguistic differences in vocabulary and grammar are known as dialects, and relate to the same social factors as accents.
Accents may also indicate that a person has a disability, including deaf people. “Deaf accent” occurs because deaf people are often unable to hear the full range of sounds that hearing people hear. This means that they are not always able to replicate the full range of sounds in spoken words. Speech also has various tones or intonation patterns that deaf people may also be unable to hear, thus they do not replicate those. There is a high degree of variability in deaf accents simply because every deaf person is different, with some who are mildly deaf and others who are profoundly deaf.
Quite often, deaf people undergo speech therapy (whether they want to or not) during their school years to learn how to pronounce sounds and words they’re unable to hear. Many deaf people have quite negative experiences of speech therapy. For deaf people, learning to speak and using speech can be quite a conscious and laborious process.
In addition to a deaf accent, it is quite possible for a deaf person to have a regional accent, depending on how deaf they are. Deaf people from different parts of the country, like hearing people, can sound different from one another when they speak.
As well as having varying accents, deaf people frequently comment that they can “see” accents, because different sounds may appear different on the lips. In a recent study, deaf people mentioned that mouthing varied in different parts of the country. This shows that deaf people are aware of differences in accents, giving examples such as how the word “bath” looks differently articulated by deaf people from the north and south of England.
‘Accents’ in sign language
Many deaf people in the UK use British Sign Language (BSL). Like spoken English, there is a high degree of variability, depending on social factors. Technically, there is little evidence for accent in sign languages – that is, systematic variation in pronunciation in signs such as their handshape or other formational features – related to social factors such as region.
But there is definitely widespread lexical variation, with different signs used for a given concept. This is similar to differences in dialect in spoken English,
like the different words for the shoes that British children wear for PE.
We found in our research that BSL signers tend to equate this lexical variation with accent. We think this is because this variation is very noticeable, and marks regional identity in BSL in the same way that accents do in spoken languages. For example, signs for numbers can vary greatly.
Importantly, we found in the same study that BSL signers place a high value on the regional variation in BSL. It’s part of what makes it a rich language, on equal footing with English, the surrounding majority language. The contestants on Love Island come from all over the UK and the world. In this season alone, there is accent variation from London, Newcastle, Wales, Italy and Essex, to name a few – Tasha’s accent is just another example of the rich diversity in English accents.