Developing British Sign Language

Developing British Sign Language


British Sign Language (BSL) is something of a “young” language. While visual signs, gestures and pantomime have existed before speech it is hard to pin down the origins of BSL. Reports written by hearing people provide solid evidence of sign language back to the 16th century, at least.

Modern BSL emerged around the time of the growth of cities. The concentration of many people in smaller areas accelerated its development and drove the adoption of a more standardised language. Although regional accent still do exist.

victorian sign aphabet
A Victorian fingerspelling guide

As time moves on society and science not only broadens but gets more specific. BSL is a living language that has to grow and develop to remain relevant, and in both these areas, it has. Modern BSL is now studied by linguists, widely taught and debated over; Its evolution mapped and recorded.


Society changes enormously, young adults these days never witnessed a time when you could smoke on the bus or in an aeroplane. Likewise, our attitudes to race and nationality have changed. Old signs for Germans (Hitler salute), Jewish people (large nose), gay people (limp wrist), are very rare to almost non-existant now.

Changes such those mentioned are generally evolved, young BSL users are uncomfortable using such signs and moved to other signs. But sometimes brand new signs are created intentionally for specific needs. Areas that have seen great advances over the last century have seen numerous new words and phrases coined. BSL is meeting these challenges through collaborative development between deaf users, subject specialists and institutions such BSL Corpus Project who administer the BSL Signbank.

Front page of BSL SIgnbank website


Recently news articles have reported the development of new signs a couple of scientific disciplines;

These articles both come with a phrase implying official acceptance into BSL. If you created a new English word no one could really say that it was officially a part of English. But if it is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary that is a pretty convincing vote of confidence.

These new signs are created in collaboration with deaf users, scientists and linguists. They are checked to make sure they conform to BSL hand shapes, have an appropriate location, orientation and movement. Both efforts were back by academic institutions, the Scottish Sensory Centre for the Biochemistry signs and BSL Corpus Project for the Astrophysics. All in all, they have a lot of weight and acceptance, making these new signs about as official as they can get.

BSL is still a young language. It has not had the exposure and study that modern English has had since the works of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Also, right up to the 70’s and even into the 80’s BSL was suppressed in favour of lip reading and vocal speech. BSL is living, growing and evolving better than it has ever done and the lives of Deaf Britons are more empowered than ever.

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