British Sign Language

Dictionary of British Sign Language / English, produced for the British Deaf Association by Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham, 1992

This is a huge brick of a book, necessarily so since it gives entries for the 1739 signs in British Sign Language (BSL). Each sign requires photos and a detailed descriptive entry. The bulk of the book is taken up with the signs of BSL.

About 160 pages of closely printed text at the beginning give a very clear outline of BSL as a language system. It is clear that at the time of making the dictionary (1992) there was still much linguistic analysis of BSL to be done (e.g. on categorising verbs). The book does not appear to have been updated, but there may well have been further work on a satisfactory description of sign language in the last twenty odd years.However, the description in this book tells me what I wanted to know: that is, how does BSL use such visually accessible features as hand position, movement and orientation to create the infinite meanings of languages realised in sound.

Universality of language

What is clear from an examination of even one entry is that BSL is as linguistically complex as any language which is realised in sound. It has nothing to do with miming. It seems that signing systems for the deaf seem to arise wherever in the world there are communities of deaf people. Moreover, although they are mutually incomprehensible, they all have a similar structure. Further, the cognitive structures embodied both in languages realised in sound and also those realised visually are basically the same. This would seem to confirm Chomsky’s hypothesis that the capacity for language is innate and part of the structure of the human brain.

Dual articulation of language

BSL, like all languages, is capable of creating an infinity of meanings because of its dual articulation – that is, separate sounds (or signs) combine to make words by the rules of phonology (or the rules constituted by shape and movement in the case of signs), which then in turn are combined by the rules of grammar into clauses.

The word in BSL and English

The basic unit of both BSL and English is the word. Each word in English is composed of phonemes, that is discrete sounds which speakers recognise as different from one another. There are 44 phonemes in English.

Each phoneme in English (and any other spoken language) can be described with reference to the choices available. For example:

Is it voiced (like /b/ or /g/) or voiceless (like /p/ or /k/)?

Where in the mouth is it produced? By the teeth and lips (like /f/ and /v/) or by the palate (like /k/ and /g/)? (Lots of options here.)

Is it continuous (like /s/ and /m/) or plosive (like /b/ and /k/)?

Is it a vowel (produced without contact between the speech organs) or a consonant (produced by some parts of the speech organs touching – such as the tongue and palate in /k/ and /g/)?

The unit in BSL which is equivalent to the word in English is the handshape. There are 57 of these. The description of the handshape in BSL is equally complex and, like the features of the phoneme, can be described as a set of choices. For example:

Which of the fingers is active?

Is each finger bent or straight?

Is the palm turned towards or away from the signer?

Grammar in BSL and English

The cognitive meanings encoded in grammar are mostly the same in English and BSL. Examples of these meanings are plurality, tense, aspect, negation and gender. Many of the most important meanings encoded in grammar are realised very differently in BSL and English.

An example is plurality. In written English this is most commonly realised by the addition of –s to the noun. In BSL plurality is realised in a number of ways, one of which is reduplication – that is by reiterating the sign.

One of the most important language universals is that all languages encode Subject Verb Object in varying word orders (SVO like English, VSO like Japanese, OSV more rarely). This seems to be realised in BSL at least in part by directional movement of the hand(s). That it is not a simple matter to describe, however, can be seen from the fact that this Dictionary describes BSL as a SVO language, while another linguist (writing for Wikipedia about BSL) describes it as “fundamentally OSV”. It is also not agreed, according to the Dictionary, as to whether BSL is best described as an SVO language or as a Topic-Comment language.


As anyone who has watched television programmes being signed, it is not only the hands that convey meaning in BSL, but also the face. One would expect the face to express emotion as in everyday life, but in fact the signals sent out by the face are as arbitrary as any other sign. For example, intensification can be expressed by puffed out cheeks.

The fact is that the signs constituting all languages, including BSL, are arbitrary. The part played by attempting to imitate the natural world in all languages (e.g. onomatopoeia in languages realised in sound) is trivial, though there may, it seems, be more direct relation between certain movements and meaning in BSL than any equivalent in English. All human languages, including BSL, are essentially abstract.

Differences between BSL and English

What is fascinating is that although BSL and English have, in most respects, a similar structure, in other respects, BSL has features which have no counterpart in English.

One of these is the use of classifiers. (An example of a classifier in English is the word head in the phrase head of cattle.) Classifiers are an important feature of Chinese, Japanese, some Native American languages and others. It is also a strong feature of BSL – the system takes several closely written pages in the Dictionary to describe even in outline.

BSL an internationally recognised language

The deaf community has had to fight hard to get its language recognised as a language equal to languages realised in sound. Even a cursory description such as this makes it clear that BSL is as complex and subtle as any other language and one capable of expressing the infinity of meanings which make us all – hearing and deaf – human.







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