British Sign Language – An Introduction

First things first

What is BSL? Put simply, it is a language with its own set of words and grammatical rules, which is expressed and understood by signs, as opposed to using the voice and decoding those sounds through the ears and brain, as in spoken language.

British Sign Language Dialects

Did you know that there is no such thing as a standardised British Sign Language, spoken across the board in English speaking countries, or even across the UK itself? It’s true – someone speaking American Sign Language would have the greatest difficulty understanding a person speaking BSL because of the wide variations in dialect between the two languages.

The reason for that particular variance is that ASL evolved from the French sign language in the 1800s, and so is closer to French than British sign language, even today. However, regional variation is perhaps more surprising. The fact remains that, as surely as someone from Newcastle speaks not only with a different accent but using a different vocabulary to someone from Dorset, BSL too varies from region to region. There are an estimated 30 different dialects used across the UK, thought to originate from the Deaf Schools set up in the Victorian period. The signs used varied between schools – because there was no such thing as standardised BSL – and so they could not help but be affected by the reigonal variants of the people in the school’s surrounding area, thus creating a set of distinct regional dialects. Despite this variation, regional sign dialects are mutually intelligible.

BSL in the Past

British Sign Language has had to fight to gain recognition – only in the last twenty-five years was it granted official recognised status – and that battle is still ongoing.

First recorded in a wedding ceremony conducted in sign in Leicester in 1576, British Sign Language has therefore been in operation for five hundred years and, in all likelihood, could reach back further. However, as a language it was very much seen as secondary, and thus there is little record of those who spoke it historically. However, following the Enlightenment, we begin to see evidence of the language’s existence, for example the sign language finger alphabet, still in use today, which was developed by esteemed writer Daniel Defoe. Another important figure in rights for the Deaf was Charles-Michel de, who set up the first dedicated school for deaf children. Due to his work for the movement, after his death it was decided that deaf people were entitled to rights, under the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is notable that this realisation was founded under a document made under the French Revolution – effectively bundling together the previously oppressed in an attempt to move towards equality, both for the proletariat and for the deaf. After this there were a series of schools set-up, following the example of l’Épée.

After this period of progress, in line with the rapid development of thought which flourished in and following the Enlightenment, events took a backward step in the Victorian period, when it became popular thinking that deaf children should learn by lip-reading, an inaccurate blunder which severely slowed the development of the Deaf at this time.

The situation now: more to be done

Only in 1974 was BSL recognised as an official language, and following this we reach the situation as it is today, with deaf people, because of their right to and full mastery of a dedicated language, able to express themselves and hence better equipped to progress both in education, in personal life, and in the career-market. The debate is still ongoing – as BSL has still not yet been granted legal status by the British government. Because of this apparently technical triviality, deaf people do not have available to them the vast range of information that many take for granted, for example medical and health related documents, legal, benefit and employment information. This proves that there is still much to be done to ensure the equal treatment granted to the Deaf community that they are entitled to – as it was first laid out in that revolutionary document in the late 18th century.

This article can also be viewed at TJC Oxford

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