Trevor Johnston - Auslan

Many people ask me how we got the name Auslan for Australian Sign Language. Well to start with, many years ago there was a group of Deaf people who were interested in improving education for Deaf children with the use of sign language in schools, using bilingualism. This group of people were called the ‘Concerned Deaf Group’. They wanted to lobby for change in educational policies in Australia. So, we started work and it was acknowledged that the best way was to work with other groups in Australia from different language communities as well. For example, with migrant communities. And when we started doing that, they asked, ‘what's the name of your language?’ and Deaf people said, ‘well, it's this, sign language, you know’. And then the response was, ‘Well, is your sign language the same as the sign language used in America, in China and India? And it’s different, so then what’s the name of it?’ And the group had quite a lot of discussion about how to name this language. In America, their sign language is known as ASL. American Sign Language.

But at that time there were actually two different names for American Sign Language. ASL, and it was also known as Ameslan, a blending of American Sign Language to make a new word. Within the discussion we decided we couldn’t call it ASL because that's American Sign Language. We can't use BSL either, that's British Sign language. And while Auslan is similar, we’re not the same. Finally, the discussion landed on Ameslan, using that, but changing it to Auslan. Instead of the AME for America, we use Aus for Australia. Thus, we created a new word, Auslan, by combining two words. In English we do this all the time. We have the word ‘fog’ and we also have the word ‘smoke’. And in combinations where both of those things occur, we call it ‘smog’, right? That's a word where we've blended two words together.

So Australian Sign Language has been blended into one word, Auslan. Everyone agreed, everyone was happy with the new name. The Deaf people were happy. And the other organisations we were working with, they were happy too because this was a nice easy name, along with all of the other language names. Now, Deaf people still signed the way they always had, this was simply a new English word for the sign that had always been used, Australian Sign Language. That was back in the 1980s and I remember where we were too, we were at Nola Colefax's house. It was a meeting that we had on a Sunday afternoon.

So, that's how the name happened, and it got out there pretty quickly. There were a few people who perhaps weren't very happy, but most people were really happy with that new name. After five or ten years, Ameslan had disappeared, and American Sign Language was known as ASL thereafter. And because America is so important in the world, including the world of the Deaf, many other people when naming their signed languages would give them similar names. For example, BSL for British Sign Language, SSL for Swedish Sign language. Very few have a proper noun like Auslan. One of the other sign languages that does have a proper noun for its name is Libras, Brazilian Sign Language. Because in the Portuguese language, ‘Li’ is the first part of ‘lingua’ for language, and ‘bras’ is from ‘Brasil’. Blended together to make ‘Libras’.

So, we have the name, ‘Auslan’. For many people it’s also important to write it properly and people often ask about that. The very first dictionary, the red book that we can see here behind me, we can see how the typography was chosen, which was in capital letters. With these dots in between the letters called interpuncts. People saw that book and assumed that the correct way to spell it was capitalised. But that was just a typographical choice for the front cover, part of the graphic design to make it look interesting and stand out. The right way to spell the name of the language is in the book, on the second or third page with the 1st letter capitalised and the rest lowercase, like every other proper noun in English.

When you're naming a person or a country or a language or any other proper noun, the first letter is capitalised and the rest are lowercase. Likewise, when we write Auslan, it should be capital A and then the rest lowercase. And if you look all the way through this book, every time Auslan is mentioned, it is always written as a proper noun. It is never capitalised. But it's really interesting because the second dictionary, ‘Signs of Australia’, if we look on the front. Or if we look here, on the ‘Survival guide to Auslan’, on the front cover. It’s funny how for many years we've represented it as a proper noun, and yet people still don't know how to write it properly. I'm a little bit disappointed that 40 years later when I read something, particularly in government documents or on websites or brochures about funding for research or curriculum development, it's back to this full capitalisation of Auslan, and I don’t know why.

I wonder if people who write it incorrectly, have they ever read any of these books, of have they have only ever seen the front cover. But even then, if you look at all of these other books, it’s correct, it's only the Red Book that had it in capitals.People think that Auslan is an acronym like ASL, where ‘A’ is ‘America’, ‘S’ is ‘Sign’, and ‘L’ is ‘Language’, and that’s why Auslan should be capitalised. Like with WHO, which we've heard a lot of in the last year or so, WHO being the World Health Organisation. ‘W’ for ‘World’, ‘H’ for ‘Health’ and ‘O’ for ‘Organisation’, WHO. The name for a word where we have the first letter of each individual word and put them together is an acronym. And when we write an acronym, they are always capitalised: WHO, NSW. But Auslan in all capitals? Well, the ‘A’ might be ‘Australia’, but what would ‘U’ stand for? The ‘S’ might be ‘Sign’ and the ‘L’ might be ‘Language’, but then what do the ‘A’ and ‘N’ stand for at the end? So, it's not an acronym, it is a proper noun and should be written like every other proper noun.

And again, I’m disappointed and frustrated, because I have told many people over 40 years when I've met them and said please write Auslan with a capital A, lower case uslan, it’s a proper noun, very simple. I've taught so many interpreting students, again over 20 years the same thing, and I wonder why, after all of this education, all of this explanation, those people have not then told their bosses, not told government departments. They just seen to accept when their employer spells it wrong and they need to be standing up and saying it’s incorrect, here’s the right way. For 40 years I've been saying the same thing so I'm glad I'm explaining it to you now.

One thing about my background, with my family and growing up, it made me think when I first started doing research on Australian Sign Language that I didn't want to be the type of hearing person who worked with the Deaf Community and always talked for the Deaf Community. I saw a lot of that growing up and I know that a lot of those people had good hearts, but after 20, 30, 40 years, they assume they know everything and they can take the position of speaking for the Community, instead of allowing the Community to speak for themselves. I thought, I won’t be like that. How I work, is by providing information to the Deaf Community.

So, for example, writing the Auslan dictionary, writing the book on the grammar of Auslan, or theory of the language at various levels. That information then filters through students at university and they’ll have better information than before. And in that way the information will get out and change would happen.And I think that with language rights, responsibility is with the community for whom that language belongs. If no one stands up, to say something, then it’s difficult for me when I continue to represent and point out when it’s wrong, the reaction is, well here’s this professor telling us what’s wrong but it looks like the community doesn't care because they never complain. So, the community has to say something. The Deaf Community, or any organisation that has Deaf people in it should be saying please change this, you’ve made a mistake. It's embarrassing that you do not know. Make them feel embarrassed, it’s not embarrassing for us, but we have to tell them.