Archive for the 'Sign Language' Category

“What an uneducated deaf mute can do” – Joseph Watson of Ayrshire

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 27 March 2015

Joseph Watson was born circa 1811, and was unfortunate to never have the opportunity to get an education.  In a publication of the Ayrshire Mission (bound in the library as Talks about Jesus to our silent ones) we are told

He grew up without any knowledge of reading, or writing, or language. He learned his trade as a weaver, and afterwards started on his own account as a barber with wonderful success until his death. He was intelligent and industrious. He possessed a measure of wit, which could make long faces “laugh and grow fat”. Any hearing or deaf person could easily understand him by signs. He often lamented his want of education. He made correct models of scenes in the land of Burns. The models, which are shown at Kilmarnock, are said to be the best and most correct that were ever made. It cost him many years’ labour to finish them

Joseph WatsonIn the article before this one, the Ayrshire Mission reprinted an Address on What an uneducated deaf mute can do, first published in the Ayr Observer of 15th May, 1886, in which the writer describes an address by the Ayrshire Deaf missioner James Paul, we learn that, in addition to his model making skills,

How skilful he is as a canary breeder, and also as a cultivator of flowers.  What do you think of the fact that this uneducated deaf mute bought a small property with his savings, and how able he is in attending to the duties of a landlord?  How intelligent he is as manifested by his conversation in signs with any one who can understand him.

Our Deaf and Dumb (published by Roe at the Derbyshire Institution) adds, “The fact that his birds were amongst the best warblers in the district puzzled many of the barber’s customers but the secret was that Watson had been careful to get a good whistling bird to set the example to the others, and so he had no difficulty with his young birds.”

His end, sometime on the night of the 22nd to the 23rd of September, 1888, was however tragic.

The body of an old man was found on the railway near Auchinleck, on Sunday morning, 23rd September last. The name of Joseph Watson on a slip of paper, with £15 and a gold watch, were found in the deceased’s pockets, and the remains were supposed to be of Joseph Watson, deaf mute, who resided in Ayr, and being away from home, was expected back on Saturday but did not return.  The watch had stopped at 9.30, which had just allowed time to walk from the traiin to the spot where he met his death.  He had been to Edinburgh by the excursion viaMuirkirk, on Saturday.  He had evidently left the train at Cumnock, where the engine of the train was being supplied with water.  The reason for his leaving the train is unknown, but it is supposed he might have mistaken Cumnock for Ayr, and proceeded along the line towards the bridge where his body was found.  There was no parapet wall, and in the darkness he had missed his footing and slipped over.  Apointsman at the Templand Viaduct identified him as a man he had called to not to proceed along the line, but of course his warning was not heard.(see Death of Joseph Watson)
cork modelAbove one of his models.  I wonder if any survive?  Any Scottish readers in Ayrshire, let us know!

1841 census – Parish: St Quivox; ED: 5; Page: 8; Line: 1390; Year: 1841

Death of Joseph Watson, p.21 of an unnamed issue bound in Talks about Jesus to our silent ones.

The Late Joseph Watson, Our Deaf and Dumb, vol.2, p.200-1

The Finger Spelling alphabet

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 21 November 2014

There is not much written about finger spelling, but in April 1889 Albert Farrar, who had been educated by Arnold at Northampton, wrote an article in Quarterly Review of Deaf-Mute Education on the history of the manual alphabet;

The use of signs and pantomimic gestures is undoubtedly of great antiquity, so much so, that its origin is lost in the obscurity of the distant past. Language has various forms, speech being one, and signs and gestures another, and when we consider how permanent and universal is the faculty of expressing our thoughts in different ways, we may well believe that signs were resorted to as soon as men felt the need of some such expedients to supply the deficiencies of speech, or to facilitate intercourse with other tribes or nations. Some think they preceded speech. We must, however, look on language as a Divine gift, and probably the most reasonable conjecture we can form would be that most of its different forms existed from the first and helped one another till speech, greatly amplified and perfected, became the one medium of intercourse and the highest mode of expression. The “survival of the fittest,” if you like! Signs or gestures were, however, not entirely displaced […]

Farrar was writing only a few years after the death of Charles Darwin whose views on the origin of language are discussed here and he slips in Spencer’s phrase ‘Survival of the fittest’ that is widely associated with Darwin.  We can dismiss the “Divine gift” idea, but the idea that gesture and signs preceded language is still a major theory.  Farrar points out that the history of the British two handed alphabet was not terribly well known, but reminds us the Venerable Bede wrote about such a system in De computo seu Indigitilatione et de Loquela manuali per gestum digitorum [also described as De Computo vel Loguela per Gestum Digitorum].

FarrarFarrar concludes his article,

In usage, our manual alphabet is not quite uniform over the country, but the differences are so few and slight as to be unnoticeable, except in v and z.  Both the forms of q in Digiti-Linga are used.  Dr. R. Elliott writes me, “I have every reason to believe the manual alphabet in its present form has always been used in the Asylum (Old Kent Road).  I have met with two of the first six pupils, and the only difference they made on the present usage was, to put the knuckles of the forefingers together with the fingers spread out for v.

We have illustrated older finger alphabets on the blog previously, but today we are inserting the alphabet from Digiti Lingua that is missing from our copy.


Bragg, Lois (1997). Visual-Kinetic Communication in Europe Before 1600: A Survey of Sign Lexicons and Finger Alphabets Prior to the Rise of Deaf Education. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 2:1 Winter 1997 p.1-25 [a very comprehensive survey]

BRIEN, D. Dictionary of British Sign Language/English. 1992, Faber and Faber. p. 849. Fingerspelling in British Sign language.

BRENNAN M. Making borrowings work in British Sign Language. in: BRENTARI D. Foreign vocabulary in sign languages. 2001, Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 49-85. (Library location: UTB TNX)

FARRAR, A. Our manual alphabet and its predecessors, Quarterly Review of Deaf-Mute Education  1889, Vol. 2 p.33-41

SPENCE, R SUTTON-, WOLL B, ALLSOP L. Variation and recent change in fingerspelling in British Sign Language. Language Variation and Change, 1990, 29(3), 313-330. (Library location: C6845 REF)

SPENCE, R SUTTON-, WOLL B. The status and functional role of fingerspelling in BSL. In MARSCHARK M, CLARK M D. Psychological perspectives on deafness. 1993, Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 185-208.

SHIPGOOD L E, PRING T R. The difficulties of learning fingerspelling: an experimental investigation with hearing adult learners. European Journal of Disorders of Communication, 1995, 30(4), 401-416.

SPENCE, R SUTTON-. Grammatical constraints on fingerspelled English verb loans in BSL. In LUCAS C. Pinky extension and eye gaze: language use in deaf communities. 1998, Gallaudet University Press. pp. 41-58.


Official recognition of British Sign Language 1987-2003 – suggested reading

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 13 November 2013

This is intended to suggest some reading about how BSL came to be recognised by the British Government.  Feel free to suggest other source material. 

  • In 1987/88 the British Deaf Association mounted a campaign calling for the official recognition of BSL. The campaign report (see below) included the text of the EC regulation for official recognition of sign languages, which was successfully debated at Strasbourg in June 1988.

BRITISH DEAF ASSOCIATION. BSL – Britain’s fourth language: the case for official recognition for British Sign Language. BDA, 1987.

The European Parliament gave its total support for the recognition of Sign Languages.  British Deaf News, 1988, Jul, 1.

  • At the 3rd European Congress on Sign Language Research held in Hamburg in July 1989, delegates agreed a statement which lists the political action needed to alter the current situation.

Statement on the recognition of the national sign languages of the deaf. Prillwitz, S. and Vollhaber, T. Current trends in European sign language research. Signum Press, 1990. pp. 404-06.

  • A written question on official recognition of BSL was put to the Prime Minister by Jack Ashley, MP and answered by the PM (John Major) on Tuesday 18 June 1991. The extract from Hansard is as follows:

“MR JACK ASHLEY: To ask the Prime Minister, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s policy towards the recommendation of the EEC resolution of June 1988; and if he will give official recognition to British Sign for the Deaf.

THE PRIME MINISTER: The Government has noted the terms of the resolution on sign languages for deaf people adopted by the European Parliament in June 1988. We fully recognise the right of deaf people to use their preferred method of communication, including British Sign Language, and have grant aided a variety of organisations concerned with the promotion and development of sign languages and other communication techniques.”

  • Jack Ashley also tabled an Early Day Motion calling upon the Government to give official recognition to BSL and to remedy the current shortage of fully trained interpreters (EDM 943).

Sign Language. British Deaf News. 1991, Sep, 5.

  • A motion for the recognition of BSL as an official UK language failed to be accepted at the Labour Party Conference in 1997 because of the complications of the voting system.

Labour fails to recognise Sign Language.  British Deaf News, 1998, Jan, 3.

  • The European Parliament reiterated its support for the rights of deaf people to use sign language as their preferred language with a second resolution on sign languages.  Richard Howitt, MEP, announced the intention of asking the European Commission what had been done to implement the resolution.

Resolution on sign languages voted in European Parliament 10 years ago. EUD Update, 1998, May, 1.

  • The CACDP and BDA asked the Government why BSL is not included in the European Charter for Minority Languages.

European recognition for Gaelic – what about BSL?  British Deaf News, 1998, Aug, 1.

No recognition for BSL in Euro Charter. CACDP Standard, 1998, 33, 1.

  • BDA gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Disablement, as a first step in the BDA campaign to get BSL recognised as a minority language under the European Minority Languages Charter which the UK signed.

BDA takes campaign to Parliament. British Deaf News, 1999, Jun, 1.

  • Federation of Deaf People organised a march to present a petition calling for official recognition of British Sign Language at No. 10, Downing Street, June 1999.

4,000 march for British Sign Language. British Deaf News, 1999, Aug, 1, 6-7.

It’s our right to choose. Disability Times. 1999, Aug/Sep, 5.

RNID News Review, 1999, 28 Aug-10 Sep, 36.

Sign of the times. Disability Now, 1999, Aug, 1. (photo only)

  • UNISON (the UK’s largest trade union) supported a campaign for official recognition of BSL.

Unison joins campaign for BSL to be recognised. British Deaf News, 1999, Nov, 3.

  • British Deaf Association sent a delegation to meet MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) with the aim of getting legislation through the Scottish Parliament in its next session.

British Deaf Association calls on Scottish Parliament to recognise sign language. British Deaf News, 1999, Dec, 7.

  • On 16th of February 2000, the Scottish Parliament debated the official recognition of BSL.

Scots leading way on BSL. Disability Now, 2000, Mar, 1.

Historic Scottish Parliament BSL debate. Disability View, 2000, May/Jun, 37.
RNID News Review, 2000, 12-26 May, 21.

  • BDA published its sign language policy, to form the basis of a campaign to raise the status of BSL.

BDA sign language policy: summary of feedback from consultants. British Deaf News, 2000, Apr, 14-15.

  • Federation of Deaf People organises further marches in support of official recognition of BSL, summer 2000.

DAY, L. BSL recognition for Bristol! British Deaf news, 2000, Dec, 20.

My experience at the BSL Rally.  Deaf Arts UK, 2000, 13, 12-13 (Deaf children talk about their performances in Trafalgar Square.)

  • British Deaf Association launched a poster campaign calling for the official recognition of BSL, Autumn 2000.

The BDA shows the finger to the Government. British Deaf News, 2000, Nov, 16.

Poster hands out strong message. Disability Now, 2000, Nov, 4.

  • The London Borough of Barnet recognised BSL as an official Community Language.

Barnet recognises BSL. CACDP Standard, 2000, 42, 9.

  • The UK Council on Deafness organised a submission to the Disability Rights Commission calling for the official recognition of BSL: 25 out of 37 members signed the submission; 3 members specifically said they were unable to sign the submission – DELTA, the Ewing Foundation, and the RNID.

Deaf organisations join forces for official recognition. British Deaf News, 2000, Dec, 14.

BSL submission. Bulletin (UKCOD), 2001, Spring, 1.

  • The Disability Rights Commission published its advice to the Government on recognition of BSL.

See DRC website at: www.drc-gb.org

Sign language campaigners step up pressure on the Government. British Deaf News, 2001, Feb, 15.

  • BDA leaders met Margaret Hodge, Minister for Disabled people, to press for immediate action on BSL recognition.

BDA update: BSL recognition. British Deaf News, 2001, May, 21.

  • Police arrested protestors as a splinter group at a Wolverhampton rally in support of BSL recognition blocked city centre traffic.

Six arrested in Wolverhampton protest. British Deaf News, 2001, May, 6-7.

Delegation of representatives from deaf organisations meets Maria Eagle, Minister for Disabled people, on 31 January 2002.  Magazine (BATOD), 2002, Apr, 46.

  • Letter to Maria Eagle, drawing parallels with the Cornish language, September 2002.

BSL rec update. Information Bulletin (FDP), 2002, 6(2), 3.

  • Malcolm Bruce took up ‘recognition of sign languages’ challenge

British Deaf News, 2003, Jan, 13.

  • On 19 December 2002, MEPs voted in support of a Conservative proposal, which gave sign language its first recognition as a minority language.

British Deaf News, 2003, Feb, 13.

  • On 18 March 2003 the Government made a formal statement that it recognised that BSL is a language in its own right (quoting an estimated 70,000 people whose preferred language it is), and promising to invest £1 million in a programme of initiatives to support this statement.

British Deaf News, 2003, Apr, 5-7. (with text of statement); May, 26.

CACDP Standard, 2003, 52, 1-2.

WFD News. 2003, 16(2), 38. (with text of statement)

  • British Deaf News published results of its survey of city councils’ recognition of BSL

BSL recognition: city councils. British Deaf news, 2003, Jun, 12-13.


ATHERTON, M. Welsh today, B.S.L. tomorrow? Deaf Worlds, 1999, 15(1), 11-15.

DARBY, A. and REDHEAD, C. Social work with deaf people. Deaf Worlds, 2000, 16(3), 69-73. (p. 73 refers to what recognition of BSL implies.)

BOWMAN, C. Official recognition of BSL: some insights from the Welsh Language Act 1993. Deaf Worlds, 2001, 17(1), 7-13.

KRAUSNEKER, V. Sign languages and the minority language policy of the European Union. In METZGER, M. Bilingualism and identity in deaf communities. 2000, Gallaudet University Press. pp. 142-158. (RNID Library location: UTB TNX)

KRAUSNEKER, V. Sign languages of Europe – future chances. In LEESON, L. Looking forward: EUD in the 3rd millenium…. 2001, Douglas McLean. pp. 64-73. (RNID Library location: Conf Coll/1998)

The status of sign languages in the European Union in 2001, and Overview of country-by-country analysis. EUD Update, 2001, 4(10), 1-30. (pp. 25-26 cover progress in the UK, including legislation to improve status of BSL).

AQUILINE C-A. Sign language recognition. WFD News, 2003, 1692), 7. (Lists countries that have recognised sign language with an indication of what ‘official recognition’ is in each country.)

TURNER, G. Government recognition and £1 million boost for British Sign Language. Deaf Worlds, 2003, 19(1), S74-S78.

Harpocrates – God of Silence

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 16 August 2013

Gisbert Cuper, or Gisbertus Cuperus as his name appears in the Latin in which he published, was a Dutch antiquarian and philologist (1644-1716).  The book of his we have in the library, bound with Antonius Borremansius’s Variarum Lectionum Liber, is called simply Harpocrates.  Harpocrates was the Greek and Roman God of Silence, adapted from the Egyptian Har-pa-khered in the Hellenistic period.  He was the child version of Horus, the newborn sun, depicted in statues as a child with a finger to his mouth.  This, representing a child, was misinterpreted by Greeks as meaning silence, and we see a depiction of that on the title page of the book here:

Harp 0 001

Throughout, our copy is heavily annotated in ink by a previous owner, but in a hand I cannot decipher.  I find the illustrations charming!  I confess I wondered if Harpo Marx got his name in any way from this god, being the brother who never spoke on screen, but although his brother Groucho joked that he had, he was named after his harp playing.

Harp 1 001Harp 2 001

Sign alphabet exhibition – The life and adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 29 July 2013

Although the exhibition is now over, I thought I would put up the last few items we had sent to be displayed on the blog.  A book that had to be omitted from the exhibition for reasons of space:

The life and adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell. In one volume. To which are added, The Dumb Philosopher, and everybody’s business is Nobody’s Business, [by Andrew Moreton]. Oxford: Printed by D.A. Talboys for Thomas Tegg… London. 1841. Attributed to Daniel Defoe

Duncan Campbell (c.1680–1730) was a Deaf soothsayer, who claimed to have been born in Lapland, probably to enhance his mystical credentials.  He was taught to read by a “learned divine of the University of Glasgow”, following the method of John Wallis.

The life and adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell has been frequently attributed to Daniel Defoe, “with little evidence […] but the views expressed on the supernatural in the work directly contradict arguments Defoe presents elsewhere, and Defoe is unlikely to have written for his enemy Edmund Curll.”  In fact the anonymous writer was probably William Bond, who then lived in the same house as Campbell in Exeter Court on the Strand.

A follow up to this book, Secret Memoirs of the Late Mr Duncan Campbell, appeared after he had died in 1732, clearly as a way of promoting Campbell’s wife’s business selling his talismans and potions.


T. F. Henderson, ‘Campbell, Duncan (c.1680–1730)’, rev. David Turner, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4494, accessed 13 June 2013]


Sign alphabet exhibition – Joseph Watson’s Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 5 July 2013

A set of two volumes unfortunately left out of the exhibition for reasons of space;

Instruction of the deaf and dumb; or, A theoretical and practical view of the means by which they are taught to speak and understand a language, containing hints for the correction of impediments of speech. Together with A vocabulary; illustrated by numerous copperplates, representing the most common objects necessary to be named by beginners printed by Darton and Harvey, 1809. by Joseph Watson, 1809

Plate 1Joseph Watson (1765-1829) worked for Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806) from 1784, and became headmaster of the London Asylum for the Deaf & Dumb in the Old Kent Road (see earlier blog posts for more on this institution).

Plates 3 001

In Instruction of the deaf and dumb Watson wrote that “Persons born deaf are, in fact, neither depressed below, nor raised above, the general scale of human nature, as regards their dispositions and powers, either of body or mind.”  He considers what language is, and describes how he goes about “communicating a knowledge of language to the naturally deaf and dumb.”  The second part of the work, sometimes printed in a separate volume (1810), has lists of vocabulary and plates designed to encourage a child to acquire an understanding of written & spoken language.

Plates 1 001The illustrations in the volume of plates are delightful glimpses in everyday life in Georgian England.  Individual pictures are not labelled, so this meant children were not restricted to learning one set term for an object or scene.  One copy we have is so well used that most of the plates are loose.  Plate one above shows various types of people; plate 6 show agricultural workers; plate 7 shows watchmen, a highway robbery and dust cart men.  Some of them have been annotated by a child – in plate 69 behind the hedge, a hunter holding a gun can be seen!

Sign alphabet exhibition – Guide to Chirology

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 5 July 2013

Guide to chirology. Watford, H.Ash. 18-?

Harry Ash (1863-1934) perhaps produced this pamphlet initially in the late1880s or the 1890s.  A pencil note on the first page says ‘Design at 24.  “X” marked on each.’  If this is a note by Ash, it would suggest that those parts were designed in 1887/8.  It is interesting that Ash, who, in his last five months at school had taught himself French while the other boys were sleeping, revived the term ‘chirology’ that was used by Bulwer.

I have scanned the whole document as a pdf here – Guide to Chirology.  It is very much of its time and has stereotypes we would avoid today.




Sign alphabet exhibition – Education for the people

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 4 July 2013

Education for the people. By Mrs Hippisley Tuckfield, London, Taylor and Walton, 1839.

Charlotte Hippisley Tuckfield, née Mordaunt (1777-1848) was the wife of Richard Hippisley Tuckfield, of Devon.  They inherited property at Little Fulford and Charlotte had the lodge at nearby Posbury House converted into a training centre for school teachers.  This later became part of the University of Exeter.

Published initially in The Cottager’s monthly visitor, (1824-6), in Education for the people, Charlotte Hippisley Tuckfield devoted the fourth section of the book to the education of deaf children.  It takes the form of a series of letters.



Hippisley TuckfieldThrough the left hand page you can just make out Selwyn Oxley’s hideously spidery handwriting, which is in most of the historical books!

Sign alphabet exhibition – Vox oculis

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 4 July 2013

Vox oculis subjecta: A dissertation on the most curious and important art of imparting speech and the knowledge of language to the naturally deaf and, consequently, dumb. With a particular account of the academy of Messrs. Braidwood of Edinburgh, and a proposal to perpetuate and extend the benefits thereof  by a parent. London, Benjamin White, 1783

The anonymous author was in fact Francis Green (1742-1809) whose son attended Thomas Braidwood’s Edinburgh school.  Green, who was born in Boston, served in the British army as an officer for nine years.  Remaining a loyalist in the War of Independence he left for Britain in 1780, where his eight year old son was educated in Braidwood’s Academy for the next six years.  Returning to Halifax, Nova Scotia and later Medford, Massachusetts, Green continued his interest in deaf education, translating works of the Abee de l’Epee into English.

“Man as a social being has an irresistible propensity to communicate with his species, to receive the ideas of others, and to impart his own conceptions” Green says in the introduction to Vox oculis subjecta.  In the first part he surveys the natural capacity of humans for language, quoting extensively from authors such as Holder and Bulwer, before going into a description of how Braidwood’s school worked in the second part.

Winzer, Margret A. The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration. RNID WLG

Sign alphabet exhibition – a Mug with the Manual Alphabet

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 4 July 2013

Mug with manual alphabet

Mug 1This mug has no maker’s mark, but similar earthenware mugs from Staffordshire with what appears to be the same sign transfer pattern, have been dated to the early 19th Century, ca. 1820 and ca. 1840.

Note how the ‘Q’ differs from the later sign alphabet.

The mug was donated to the Library by Mrs P.J. Bierschenk over twenty years ago. Click on images for a larger size.

Mug 2