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The Future of British Sign Language

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Published: Wed, 24 May 2017

The future of British sign language: Towards one variety or a variety of languages.

When discussing the future of British Sign Language we must first define sign language and British Sign Language (BSL). Sign language is a visually based language that uses signs to represent specific words or phrases. There are numerous different types and varieties of sign language based around the world, some are rudimentary while others are have developed into advanced languages. British Sign Language is the most developed and widely used form of sign language used in Britain. It is estimated that 50, 000 people within the UK use BSL.

BSL is the natural language of signs that has developed in Britain over centuries. It is the language used by the British Deaf community. (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 13).

Similar to spoken and written languages BSL has grown and evolved since its inception, but unlike many spoken or written languages is not universal. BSL users are restricted to communicating within Britain, or with other signers familiar with BSL, as BSL does not extend beyond Britain’s borders, even to other English speaking populations. Indeed BSL, American Sign Language (ASL), Irish Sign Language (ISL), have all developed different signs for different words and have different structures, thus, someone signing with ASL will not be able to communicate clearly with someone signing with BSL. In addition to variations from country to country, there are dialect variations within each form of sign language.

BSL, like spoken language, has evolved through the needs of its users in spontaneous and natural ways. There are wide regional differences in some signs – numbers and colours are notoriously variable, however most signs are the same. Many of the variations stem from the schools Deaf people attended; new signs are being coined, and more established signs changing with time and use. Hearing learners may find this a problem in the early stages, but it doesn’t present a problem to native signers. Variations are largely in the vocabulary of signs – the “words” of the language; the grammatical structures that hold it together and give meaning, vary very little. Language has a life of its own, and most attempts to interfere or control it tend to fail. (DeafSign.Com, 2000)

Admittedly, it is the nature of language to grow and change, and many dialects and variations have emerged within Standard English. But while dialects in Standard English sometimes lead to confusion if two speakers of different dialects communicate, these differences seldom make it impossible for English speakers, or writers, to communicate with one another.

Where as, without a universal form of sign language it makes it difficult for the signing population to communicate with people signing with different variations. This mutual unintelligibly within variations and dialects of sign language leads to deaf populations being not only removed from hearing populations, but also from one another.

Because deaf communities tend to be smaller and more contained than other minorities within the hearing community the differences that emerge in sign language are more defined. Where as dialects in spoken English tend to emerge in areas or social communities, there are many more factors that influence dialects in sign language. Sutton-Spence & Woll (2004, p. 13) explain that a signer’s age, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and locale can all effect the way in which they sign. This leads to many different variations within one variety of sign language alone. Thus, even a concerted effort to unify sign language, whether it be the unification of BSL from the current number of dialects and variations within BSL, to a uniform use of the language, or an even greater attempt to unify the varieties within countries, or even worldwide will be an extremely difficult task.

There are so many external forces on the development of sign language that it is difficult to control its use and development. The age at which a person learns to sign and whom they learn it from effects the way in which they sign. This is especially notable when comparing the differences between the children of deaf and hearing parents.

Exposure to sign language at an early age is different to the children of deaf parents and the children of hearing parents. Those born to deaf parents are more likely to have had early exposure to a fluent model of adult BSL. Those born to hearing parents often… only begin to learn BSL when they start school…. Research comparing adult signers from deaf and hearing families has shown that their signing differs significantly. (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 23-24).

One of the reasons that signing in BSL differs so dramatically from one person to another is that BSL is a complex, fully developed language, which is extremely different from Standard English. BSL has it’s own grammar, syntax, lexicon, and has many other unique features.

BSL evolved naturally, as all languages do. It uses both manual and non-manual components – handshapes and movements, facial expression, and shoulder movement. BSL is structured in a completely different way to English, and like any language it has its own grammar. Linguists generally agree that BSL is a topic comment language. For example, the question in English ‘What is your name?’ becomes the sequence ‘Your name what?’ in BSL. (RNID 2004, p. 4).

Anyone already fluent in Standard English, or any other language, that wishes to learn BSL must learn a completely new language structure and way of communicating to be able to sign in BSL. Like with Standard English there is a dictionary and many other texts to assist BSL users. The British Deaf Association’s Dictionary of British Sign Language (1992) is 1084 pages long and includes both pictures of each sign in the language, as well as, English word definitions. Yet people wishing to learn BSL cannot do so from text book alone as there are many features of BSL which must be seen or described to understand, such as, nods of the head, shoulder shrugs, facial expressions and lip patterns. “There are many mouth patterns that convey grammatical and phonological information in BSL.” (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 81).

In addition, to knowing the intricacies of each sign, as well as, the structure and vocabulary of BSL, signers must also become familiar with other unique features of BSL. Features include the ability to express metaphors, poetry and humour using signs. Signers must also become familiar with BSL idioms, euphemisms, expletives / insults, as with any language BSL contains exceptions to the language rules and certain taboo words, such as, “ORAL-SIGNER” (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 245). This insult, which is unique to the signing community, reveals the effect of the divide between different varieties and dialects of sign language on the signing community and signing individuals’ opinions of other signers. 

Furthermore, because signing languages are completely visual and do not have a written component, like Standard English, this forces people who wish to communicate through both BSL, or other forms of sign language, and also written English to learn two completely different languages. While BSL is currently the most commonly used variety of sign language in Britain, with the internet and email becoming more dominant communication tools by the day. Younger users of sign language may start to tend towards a variety of sign language that incorporates Standard English into its overall format. Currently there are a number of varieties of sign language used in Britain that use Standard English sentence construction and grammar, but these varieties have long been second to BSL.

While the reason for the construction of BSL is quite simple and logical, this does not make the language any easier to use. BSL uses signs that often encompass a few words or a phrase, while the grammar and sentence structure work to create shortened sentences. All of these features serve to shorten BSL sentences, and are necessary to ensure timely communication, as it takes longer to form signs than to speak words.

There are a number of other forms of sign language and signing used in Britain, these include Cued Speech, the Paget-Gorman Sign System (PGSS), Signed English, Sign Supported English (SSE), and Fingerspelling. All of these visual languages are largely dependent on Standard English. Some users of sign language use BSL in conjunction with these other forms, while others may choose to stick with one variety.

Sign Supported English (SSE) is probably the most popular alternate variety of sign language currently used in Britian. This variety of sign language uses BSL vocabulary and Standard English sentence structure and grammar. “In Sign Supported English (SSE), the key words of a sentence are signed while the person speaks.” (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 14). SSE is an advanced variation of Signed English, which uses BSL to sign all of the words in a sentence, using Standard English sentence structure and grammar.

There are problems with the use of Signed English. It is very slow, and a message takes longer in Signed English than in either BSL or [Standard] English. This means that spoken English accompanying Signed English becomes unnaturally slow, and many English speakers let speech take over and drop some signs. Many BSL signers using Signed English insert features of BSL grammar so that the grammar is not ‘pure English’ any more. (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 16).

Just as SSE and Signed English depend on Standard English so too does the Paget-Gorman Sign System (PGSS). But whereas SSE and Signed English use BSL signs and incorporate Standard English form, PGSS uses “signs [that] do not come from any sign language, but have been created to represent English words and English grammar” (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 14). Because of its focus on Standard English PGSS is easy for native English speakers to learn, but it is not a language used by the deaf community. Similarly, cued speech, which is a system that does not use signs at all, rather “hand cues are made near the mouth to identify different speech sounds.” (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2004, p. 13). Cued speech is a verbally dominated form of visual language and is thus not commonly used within the deaf community.

One of the most basic and widely used forms of signing if fingerspelling, which has one sign for every letter of the alphabet and requires users to spell out the letters in a word or sentence. Fingerspelling is not a language in itself but is often incorporated into sign languages. Most commonly fingerspelling is used to spell words for which there is no sign, such as, names of people or places. Alternately, fingerspelling can be used to draw attention to a word in a sentence or phrase. Although fingerspelling may be the most simple and basic form of signing, it fails to be universal because different countries have different signs for each letter in the fingerspelling alphabet, making it impossible for signers from different countries to understand the words that are being spelt.

Edward Finegan (2004, p. 19-20) identifies three modes of linguistic communication in Language: Its Structure & Use. He defines these as speaking, writing and signing, yet signing at this point is not a fully developed universal mode of communication as a result of the restrictions the different varieties of sign language put upon their users. Because sign languages have developed and evolved naturally within the relatively small communities within which they are used around they have developed independently and created mutually exclusive varieties. There have been attempts in the past to create or nominate one universal sign language, but up until this point no one variety of sign language has succeeded in dominating the international signing community.

In Britain because BSL is the official language of the deaf community, with approximately 50, 000 people within the UK using BSL, it will continue to be the dominant sign language in Britain. Although, with the rise of internet technology and written electronic communication the younger signing community may start to tend towards a Standard English based form of sign language, such as, SSP. The use of SSP would enable signers to communicate in the same language in person and in writing, rather than communicating with BSL sign language in person and Standard English in writing.

The current dominance of British Sign Language can be attributed to the same factor which has led to the formation of the so many different varieties of sign language, in Britain and around the world, because signing communities tend to be quite small and isolated from one another, adult signers pass on the language they are familiar with ti younger signers. As a result, younger signers may not be aware of other sign languages available to them. But with the influence email, and the rise of written communication as a result, younger singers will beging to seek out a variety of sign language that incorporates the Standard English conventions they will become more familiar with as they become more familiar with writing. Indeed this may simply lead to the transformation of the current BSL variety into a variety of sign language, which incorporates rather than excludes Standard English conventions. Alternately, the language we currently know as BSL could be replaced by another variety of sign language, such as Sign Supported English (SSE), or another variety altogether.

In a world dominated by travel and technology signing communities, both within Britain and around the world, need a language through which they can successfully, and clearly, communicate with one another. The first step towards universal communication between signing communities is to ensure that the sign languages used are simple for hearing people to learn, and that there is as little variation (and as a result confusion) within the varieties. By encouraging hearing people to learn sign language the signing community would broaden the language base and thus provide stability to the language. And although it is difficult to control the growth and evolution of any language, by adopting a sign language which follows Standard English conventions, the language would have to adhere to Standard English and thus evolve with it, creating a more universal and less confusing language. By adopting or creating a sign language based on Standard English, the variations of that sign language would tend be restricted to the variations of Standard English.

The evolution of language is a gradual process, therefore the future of British Sign Language will most likely see the continuation of BSL as the dominant language, with the growth of a Standard English based language. The two languages will coincide for a period before the modern Standard English based language gains control.


BRITISH DEAF ASSOCIATION, Brien, D. (ed.), 1992. Dictionary of British Sign Language. London: Faber and Faber.

CRYSTAL, D., 2003. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. 2nd edition. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press. (p. 222-227)

DEAFSIGN.COM, 2000. Is British Sign Language standardised? [online]. Available from: http://www.deafsign.com/ds/index.cfm?scn=article&articleID=6 [Accessed 25 June 2005]

FINEGAN, E., 2004. Language: Its Structure and Use. 4th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

RNID, April 2004. Introducing British Sign Language. London: RNID

SUTTON-SPENCE, R., & WOLL, B., 2004. The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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