A Simple Intro to BSL Grammar.

A Simple Intro to BSL Grammar.

Having read our previous article on how to learn languages let’s have a look at some useful ideas for learning British Sign Language (BSL). In English you would say something like;
“I made some pancakes”
But in BSL it would be more like;
“Pancakes I made”

In a language, the sentences (clauses) have a specific structure, but compare languages to each other and differences in structure emerge.
In English, for example, we have SVO, the Subject then Verb then Object
“I(S) made(V) some pancakes(O)”
Hindi has SOV, The Subject then Object then Verb.
“I(S) some pancakes(O) made(V)”
BSL uses a different concept, of Time-frame then Topic then Action or a Comment;
“Yesterday(time frame) pancakes (topic) made (action/comment)”

Why time-frame? The time-frame is important because the signs in sign language do not change whether they are referring to the past, present or future compared to English where you show the time-frame using a variation of a word e.g. made, make, making.

If you want to learn BSL well you have to internalise this sentence order and put your brain in a BSL type time-frame state. Every time you lift your hands into signing position use this physical position to signal your brain “hey it’s time to think BSL!”.

As you progress further you will learn more grammar structure. Your understanding of BSL word order will then extend to a more sophisticated structure. But get the three stages mentioned above and you will be perfectly set up.

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16 Responses

  1. Could anyone help me structure the following into BSL – I am working with the York tourism centre on some BSL welcome messages:

    York is a vibrant festival city with Roman roots and a Viking past, offering an adventure for everyone.

    My thinking is that this is a complex sentence that needs splitting, perhaps as:

    York vibrant festival city. Roman roots has. Viking past has. Adventure everyone offers.

    Am I on the right lines please? Any help very much appreciated.

    Thanks, Tony

    1. Dear Tony,

      Thank you for your question, love what you’re doing!

      So this issue we have is that BSL has not real recognisable written format so there is no real right or wrong about it. However, splitting the sentence and using punctuation does make a difference and can make your message more accessible, so your example is along the right lines.

      We would recommend going a bit softer though, as the English level for your target group will vary. We would suggest something like:

      York, exciting festival city. Has Roman and Viking history. Lots adventure for all.


      York, exciting festival city. Roman and Viking history has. Lots adventure for all.

      If you were signing it, you would construct it a lot differently, but still swap vibrant for exciting.

      In written format, it still needs to have some softer linguistic framework to be sympathetic of the English language, yet accessible.

      If you have a bigger piece we help can moderate it and then run it by a few of our deaf customers, get their opinion on it – if that helps?

      Wishing you success with what you’re doing!


      appa Team

  2. Brilliant, that is very encouraging and helpful. I do have three more parts to work on for the full, and complex message:

    Part 2:
    English: Perfectly placed half-way between London and Edinburgh and with the spectacular Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and Wolds right on the doorstep, York is unlike any other English city.
    Suggested BSL: York, half way between London and Edinburgh.
    Spectacular Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and Wolds very close.
    York, unique English city.

    Part 3:
    English: Boasting the National Railway Museum, York Minster and JORVIK Viking Centre, you’ll find thirty world-class museums, galleries and tours all within easy walking distance.
    York, proud of National Railway Museum, York Minster, Jorvik Viking Centre.
    30 world-class museums, galleries and tours
    All easy walking distance from centre

    Part 4:
    English: Crowned Britain’s Home of Chocolate, the most haunted city in Europe and with the best racecourse in the country, York is abundant with culture and character. Plus the city’s thriving creative and arts community has earned it an esteemed UNESCO City of Media Arts status.

    Britains’s home of chocolate.
    Most haunted city in Europe.
    Best racecourse in country.
    York, lots of culture and character.
    Excellent creative and arts community.
    UNESCO City of Media Arts status.

    I have not yet checked the BSL dictionary as to whether the words exist or will need to be finger spelled, the venues I guess will need finger spelling.

    Welcome advice on the above – then I have the first full message. One I have the BSL word sequence, I will check the database for signed equivalents and add in any new ones needed, then a video can be produced. I would be very happy to post the resulting video here so you can really see and comment on what we are doing.

    Best wishes


    1. Essentially you are producing Sign Supported English, which is understandable. However. there is no use of actual BSL features such as topographical space or placement, enumeration etc.

      I’d go the extra mile and get an actual BSL user to help you with this. Maybe we arrange something for you here at appa?

  3. How would you say “I went to the park”.
    I was thinking you put the time frame then the topic then the action/comment so would it be ” Yesterday the park I”.
    Please help me.
    Thank you

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I’m a novice so please take this with a pinch of salt, but I think this would be signed in this order:

      Yesterday the park I go

      I think the sign for go is directional so it may be that you don’t need the “I” as it’s clear in the way that you sign “go”.

    2. Hi,
      Its past tense so you would rephrase from English into BSL and state you had “been” rather than “I went to”.

      Our current BSL Level 1 class has only done 1 session. It’s being taught remotely so why not join?

      BSL Level 1

      Kind regards.


  4. Hello!
    I’m wondering, how are more complex sentences usually signed? Like if you have a sentence with past simple and past perfect in it to indicate the time relationships between them, how will it be portrayed in BSL? Will a person need to introduce some new comments to explain the difference between the time periods, like “at first, A happens in the past, and then B happens iin the past” or something?

  5. Hello! I love signing songs and I love translating them into BSL, however, I’ve had a bit of an issue with the following lyric:
    “All I ever want to be is somebody to you” as this is technically a phrase that wouldn’t make sense in a literal translation. The song is a love song so that “somebody” means a partner/significant person. How would you sign this?

    I was thinking something along the lines of:
    All (my) life, I person significant you think, want I

    Would this be correct?

    1. Songs are very difficult to translate, it depends on your own artistic interpretation and understanding the subtext of the original artist.
      Yours could work as an explanation, now you need to make it visually emotive.

  6. Hello, I am learning basic BSL via the internet and teaching it as an after-school club in a primary school and would like to know the word order when using colours. Do you sign ‘pink pig’ or ‘pig pink? Can anyone help please? Thank you!

    1. It depends if the colour or pig is the subject. Put the subject first and that should be correct in the context you are using it.
      Remember: (Time-frame) then Topic then Action or a Comment

    1. I would have thought it’d be:

      Last Tuesday, weather what? Sunny!

      OR Weather, sunny. When? Last Tuesday.

  7. So say I was saying ‘ Yesterday Tommy went to the park’. Would i sign ‘Yesterday Tommy park went’? And then would I also say the BSL version as I’m signing it, or would I just say the normal english version as I’m signing?

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