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Action Deafness Books - Featured Authors

Rachel Sutton-Spence – Riding to Success!!

How did the linguistics of creative sign language become your

When Bencie Woll and I were writing the book "The Linguistics of British Sign Language", the publishers asked us to add two more sections: one on phonetics and phonology and one on the "Extended use of BSL".  I've never really much been into phonetics and phonology so Bencie took pity on me and said she'd do that bit, if I did the bit on extended use.  I loved writing that part because I have always loved stories and poems and jokes - in English as well as BSL. I should say that it was Bencie who first introduced me to BSL poetry when I attended a class of hers back in the early 1990s. I fell in love with the BSL work of Dorothy Miles and decided her work deserved a book about it.  Paddy Ladd was very helpful too.

After that, it just grew.  I got into sign language humour (there are some cryingly funny BSL jokes), and Trinity College Dublin Press have just published the book I co-wrote with Donna Jo Napoli "Humour in Sign Languages"

Somehow, the more you learn about something, the more you realise there is to learn.  Now I am working on a 3-year research project on metaphor in creative sign language with Michiko Kaneko and Donna West and we hope to have a book on that in a few years. time.

As a Senior Lecturer in Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol, 
what does your work involve?

I teach sign linguistics - which isn't nearly such a scary subject as it sounds.  It just means looking at what happens in sign languages, describing it and trying to explain why it works like that.  I teach it to undergraduates, post-graduates and professionals or people who are studying BSL outside the university but want to know more about BSL.  I also supervise people doing PhDs in the subject and so my own research.

How long did it take to write 'The Linguistics of British Sign

That's a tough question. The book came from our lecture notes and handouts.

I think we built those up to be fairly substantial over five years or so, but then spent another fairly intensive two years turning those into a book.  Bencie and I ate a lot of pizza and ice-cream to get it written.

How did you find a publisher? Was it difficult?

Bencie was approached by the publisher after the success of the book on BSL that she wrote with Jim Kyle in 1985

How did you get to work with Bencie Woll?

I first worked with her on a research project in 1989.  I saw the advert in the Time Higher Education Supplement for a research assistant.  I had already worked as a research assistant on a language project at Cambridge University but was interested in BSL, so when I saw the advert I jumped at it.  Since then Bencie has been my academic mentor - she was my PhD advisor and we have collaborated on a lot of publications.  She is academically one of the most generous people I know - she is always happy to share ideas and knowledge with people - and she is one of the cleverest people I know. I have been amazingly privileged to work with her.  She's a bit like my "academic mum" I suppose.

How do you manage to fit your global bike rides into your hectic
riding schedule?!

You won't believe this, but actually I get quite a few of my ideas when I am riding.  You can't think things through carefully and logically on a bike but sometimes the most extraordinary insights just pop into your head.

Long-distance riding gets me into a head-space that I can't reproduce any other way.  Once I had an idea about BSL folklore and spent the rest of the ride afraid that I'd fall off, bang my head and suffer amnesia and never remember what the idea was.  Luckily I got home in one piece and wrote the idea down.

7. Your recent work on British Deaf Folklore is very interesting - do
you think there is a case for more D/deaf people to document / record
their experiences and engagement with Deaf Folklore? Do you think this
is something Action Deafness Books should encourage?

The more deaf people who document deaf folklore the better. It's not easy to document it, though.  It's more than just sitting someone in front of a camera and asking them to tell you a BSL joke. There are some good American Deaf folklore scholars and I hope British Deaf people will be able to follow up on similar work in BSL.  There is such a wealth of deaf folklore and it is changing all the time.  I am currently working with a student to look at the understanding of deaf folklore of younger ex-mainstreamers.

How do you make your own academic work accessible to D/deaf people? Some of the terminology used is quite challenging.

I teach courses in linguistics using BSL at a range of places.  A lot of BSL tutors come to those courses. It is not an easy subject but I think deaf people recognise how important it is and put the effort in to understand it.  The terminology is challenging but there are BSL signs for most of it, thanks to the work of the early pioneers (like Mary Brennan, Clark Denmark, Frances Elton and others at Durham and Moray House in Edinburgh).

What are you working on now?

I am working on BSL folklore and creativity - especially metaphors in BSL.  I hope this will lead to a book in the next few years, but books take a surprisingly long time to move from start to finish. I will be publishing journal articles and giving presentations on these topics in the meantime.

And if I *do* ride my bicycle from Mumbai (Bombay) to Delhi with a group of Indian Deaf people to help promote Indian Sign Language (as I might), the book might take a week or two longer...