Deaf Awareness Week: British Sign Language

This blog shows the end of Deaf Awareness Week (4th-9th May 2021), which is a week which is dedicated to deaf people across the globe and raising awareness about deaf issues, the culture and overall bringing people together in harmony. But today, we will be speaking about British Sign Language.

What is British Sign Language?

The British Sign Language (BSL) is a language which is used by around 145,000 deaf people / children, all across the UK and is the 2nd most used language in the UK. It is a visual means of communicating using gestures, facial expression, and body language. Sign Language is used mainly by people who are Deaf or have hearing impairments. As late as the 1980s, the sign language used by the deaf communities in Britain was considered a simple collection of gestures and pantomime, while the parents of deaf children were advised not to allow their children to use signs or gesture. It was thought it would prevent them from developing lip-reading skills and speech.

History of BSL

Since BSL is an unwritten language, its early history is poorly understood. The very few written records about the use of sign language by the deaf communities in Britain were almost exclusively created by the hearing people which makes them questionable in regard to the language itself. But there is solid evidence that deaf people in Britain were signing as early as in the 16th century although most scholars believe that they were signing earlier. It is thought that the first forms of modern BSL developed sometime in the 18th century and that its development was closely related with the growth of cities and used as a standard. With a larger number of people being concentrated on a smaller area, deaf individuals came into contact with a larger number of other deaf people. Eventually, they formed communities that developed a more standardised form of sign language although the language itself continued to develop and change, just like spoken language.

The BSL Alphabet

Fingerspelling is a method of spelling words using hand movements. The fingerspelling alphabet is used in sign language to spell out names of people and places for which there is not a sign. Fingerspelling can also be used to spell words for signs that the signer does not know the sign for, or to clarify a sign that is not known by the person reading the signer. Fingerspelling signs are often also incorporated into other signs. e.g. the sign for ‘gold’ is the finger spelt ‘g’ and then moving your hands away in a shimmering motion (see the online dictionary for a demonstration). British Sign Language (BSL) uses a two-handed alphabet however some other sign languages, such as American Sign Language (ASL), use a one-handed alphabet.

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