Sign Language Series: British Sign Language (BSL)

Next up is British Sign Language (BSL). What I want to illustrate here is that although a lot of our ancestors came from Europe, including the UK, BSL is not mutually intelligible with ASL. BSL is less distinct, but still so, from Irish Sign Language (ISL). Really, BSL has similarities with AusLan from Australia and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), as the latter two are evolved from 19th-century BSL. The commonality between these three are the manual alphabet, grammar, and similar lexicons, resulting in about 82% similarity in signs and 98% similarity in cognates. The three languages could be considered technically regional dialects of a common language.

BSL, like all other sign languages in the Deaf world, is a language where we use our hands, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning. It is estimated that about 175,000 deaf people in the UK use BSL, as well as those who have daily/extensive contact with the deaf there.

Records of an existing sign language within the UK go back to about 1570. Thomas Braidwood founded Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in 1760, the first school for the deaf in Britain. Later, Joseph Watson in 1792 became the headmaster of the first public school for the Deaf in Britain, the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Bermondsey. These two formed the Braidwood basis for BSL. Keep this in mind while we look at one other thing. Thomas Gaulladet from the American side of the pond traveled to Europe to research deaf education. He had requested learning about the Braidwood method, but was turned away by them. They had REFUSED to teach him their methods. Rebuffed, he turned his attention to the French Royal Institution for the Deaf, which had the education methods based on Old French Sign Language and the signs used by Abbé de l’Épée, a philanthropic educator of 18th century France, for the deaf. There IS a reason why there is 60% similarity to modern French Sign Language and almost no intelligibility for BSL signers! (there is only about 31% sign similarities and 44% cognates) It makes sense why ASL is beautiful, as it came from the breath-taking speakers of French! Plus, there is French in my oldest-known family line, but I digress…

BSL had gone through similar experiences of being discouraged in its use in public school and unofficially passed on from generation to generation in institutions, as emphasis was made on lip-reading and fingerspelling. BSL was FINALLY recognized as a language in its own right by the UK government in 2003, but still, it has no legal protection. A legacy of its dark and stormy history for its users can be seen today in the older signers who still fingerspell and sign a bit, and the younger users who don’t fingerspell as much and sign more than ever.

BSL uses a topic-comment structure. Canonical word order outside of topic–comment structure is object-subject-verb, and noun phrases are head-initial. BSL has several regional dialects, spreading from the north of Scotland to the south of England.

The manual alphabet is completely different from that of the ASL manual alphabet, which we know is single-handed. BSL’s alphabet is two handed in that sometimes, the letters are formed by both hands as in the case of letters like D, K P, Q, etc., while some are formed with the signed letter of the “letter” hand placed on the “paper” hand. Go to the first link shown below this entry. To me, being an ASL signer, it is foreign and would take time to learn. Numbers are also signed differently, but are easy to understand if you just remember to keep the palm turned inward, and the number ten is both hands in fives, palms again kept inward. Above ten, some are turned inward, and some are turned outward. Go to the second link for numbers.

The third link shows a story being told in BSL, and after watching this, a little bit was understood, with signs here and there that “looked familiar,” but I was not sure if I read them right. There were enough signs in there to throw me off the story and leave me with no idea what was being said. I couldn’t make sense of what was going on without listening to the audio! After listening to the audio and watching the signs, I saw that there were some similarities, but you could see some subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the signs, like the word, “dark.” Some signs are the same, like the word, “love.” I think that some signs look “kinda” similar to ours, but have an entirely different meaning. This is after having no exposure to BSL!

It would be interesting to talk with a deaf person from the UK without pen and paper!

One Response to Sign Language Series: British Sign Language (BSL)

  1. Adriana October 2, 2015 at 2:40 am #

    This is a good post. It clearly draws the line of difrnfeece between ASL and BSL. Some people who do not know BSL or ASL should read this and be informed. It is good to know BSL or ASL exist because it is not only exclusively be used by deaf people but people who have special needs when speech is a challenge.

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