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British Sign Language

People who are deaf or hard of hearing often use a visual language called sign language to communicate. In sign languages, people communicate through hand signs, facial expressions, and gestures. There are different types of sign languages around the world, including American Sign Language (ASL), which is used in the United States and anglophone Canada, and British Sign Language (BSL), which is used in the United Kingdom. Learning about British Sign Language, including the British Sign Language alphabet and number system, can help people better understand how visual languages convey meaning. 

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British Sign Language

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People who are deaf or hard of hearing often use a visual language called sign language to communicate. In sign languages, people communicate through hand signs, facial expressions, and gestures. There are different types of sign languages around the world, including American Sign Language (ASL), which is used in the United States and anglophone Canada, and British Sign Language (BSL), which is used in the United Kingdom. Learning about British Sign Language, including the British Sign Language alphabet and number system, can help people better understand how visual languages convey meaning.

British Sign Language Meaning

British Sign Language is the form of sign language used throughout the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, and Wales. The language was not officially recognized as a minority language until 2003. Now that the language is recognized, there is more international awareness, and it is easier for deaf communities to secure government funding for their communication needs. Today, over 150,000 people in the United Kingdom use British Sign Language.

BSL, United Kingdom, StudySmarterFig. 1 - BSL is used in the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland is also a part of the United Kingdom. Some people in Northern Ireland use BSL, but others use Irish Sign Language (ISL), the primary form of sign language used in the Republic of Ireland, the southern part of the country that is not a part of the United Kingdom.

About British Sign Language

British Sign Language dates back to the 15th century, with the publication of The History of the Syon Monastery at Lisbon and Brentford (1450). This text contains descriptions of hand signs, including some which still exist in modern British Sign Language. It was not until the 18th century that Thomas Braidwood founded the first British school for the deaf in Edinburgh, called "The Braidwood Academy for Deaf and Dumb." The Braidwood school focused on oral communication rather than signing, but it also used "the combined system," the early form of British Sign Language.

Although deaf people were unofficially communicating with signs in Britain for years, up until the mid-20th century, deaf people were encouraged to read lips and spell words on their fingers rather than use sign language. It was not until the 1970s that British Sign Language was accepted and taught in schools. The British Sign Language community then spent many years campaigning to convince the government to recognize the language, which it eventually did in 2003.

British Sign Language spread to New Zealand and Australia. Today, New Zealand and Australian Sign Language are considered dialects of British Sign Language, and the acronym BANZSL is often used to refer to their shared language family.

British Sign Language is not the only form of sign language people use in Britain. Some people use Sign Supported English (SSE), although this is not a language the way British Sign Language is. SSE uses signs that exist in British Sign Language, but it follows the same syntactical rules as spoken English. This system helps people with hearing impairments who learn English grammar.

British Sign Language Grammar

British Sign Language is a visual language, so the way it conveys meaning differs from spoken language. Those who use British Sign Language primarily use their hands to communicate. There are over 1,800 signs in British Sign Language.

Just like spoken English, British Sign Language still has phonology and grammar. Sentences in British Sign Language are composed of a subject (a person, place, or thing) and a commentary about the subject. Like American Sign Language, British Sign Language uses a topic-comment structure, in which the speaker signs the topic of the conversation first and then comments on it. For example, note the difference in word order in the two following examples:

Spoken English: I made pizza.

British Sign Language: Pizza I made.

Phonology refers to the speech system of a language. In sign language, phonology is a bit different and instead has to do with the hand motions, locations, and shape of hand signs.

British Sign Language Alphabet

British Sign Language has an alphabet with signs for each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. What is unique about the British Sign Language alphabet is that it is a two-handed alphabet. This means that signers must use both hands to form the letters. The image below depicts the British Sign Language alphabet.

BSL, Alphabet, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The BANZSL alphabet

British Sign Language Numbers

British Sign Language also requires the use of hand signals to indicate numbers. To sign the numbers in British Sign Language, signers use their dominant hand to lead the sign. For numbers ten through nineteen, the signs require movements in addition to finger shapes. To sign twenty and the numbers above it, signers use two hands. They also often mouth the number while they are signing.

BSL, Numbers, StudySmarterFig. 3 - BSL Numbers 1-9

American Sign Language vs. British Sign Language

Although American Sign Language and British Sign Language are both used by people in English-speaking communities, they are two different languages. A speaker of one is unlikely to understand the other one because only 31% of the languages' signs are the same.1 One of the main reasons why American Sign Language is different from British Sign language is because it has a one-handed alphabet.

Those who use American Sign Language also frequently use fingerspelling (spelling out words with letter signs) for all types of words when they lack a sign for it. Meanwhile, British Sign Language uses a two-handed alphabet and uses fingerspelling rarely, typically only for proper nouns.

British Sign Language - Key takeaways

  • British Sign Language (BSL) is the form of sign language used throughout the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, and Wales. New Zealand and Australian Sign Language are considered dialects of BSL.
  • Until the 1970s, British Sign Language was not supported in schools.
  • In 2003 British Sign Language was officially recognized by the government as a minority language.
  • British Sign Language has a two-handed manual alphabet.
  • British Sign Language is different than American Sign Language primarily because the two languages use different signs, and American Sign Language uses a one-handed alphabet.

1 David McKee and Graeme Kennedy, "Lexical Comparison of Signs From American, Australian, British, and New Zealand Sign Languages: David Mckee and Graeme Kennedy." In K. Emmorey and H. Lane (Eds). The Signs of Language Revisited: An Anthology to Honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Kilma. 2000

Frequently Asked Questions about British Sign Language

British Sign Language is different from American Sign Language primarily because it uses a two-handed manual alphabet and American Sign Language uses a one-handed one. 

In 2003 BSL became legally recognized as a minority language. 

British Sign Language has hand signs to represent numbers one through twenty. To sign numbers above twenty, signers use two hands and indicate the different numbers. 

British Sign Language is the form of sign language used throughout the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, and Wales.

British Sign Language helps people who are deaf or hard of hearing communicate. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or False? All of Ireland uses BSL 

True or False? American Sign Language uses a two-handed manual alphabet just like British Sign Language. 

How many letter are in the BSL alphabet?

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