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A Brief History of BSL

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 6 July 2012

[This brief history of  British Sign Language is taken from our library reading lists. It may be a useful starting point for anyone interested in looking into the history of the language. I would suggest that you always check the original sources where you can.]

The first British records of deaf people using sign language date from the 16th century, and there are even earlier records of sign language in other countries.  Deaf people have probably always used signs to communicate, but until the 19th century most of them lived in scattered villages and towns, rarely meeting other deaf people, so the signs they used with hearing relatives, neigbours and employers were probably their own invention.  It seems highly likely, however, that deaf individuals spontaneously came up with the same sign for actions such as ‘eat’ and ‘drink’.

Deaf parents with deaf children may have developed a family sign system (known as ‘home sign’) but unless they were in contact with other deaf people, their signs may have been different from those used in other deaf families.  There were also isolated villages where intermarriage produced an unusually high proportion of deaf individuals.  One such ‘gene pool’ was the area round Maidstone in the Weald of Kent.   In the 1630s settlers from the Weald took the ‘deafness gene’ to Martha’s Vineyard, the deaf community made famous by Nora Groce in her book ‘Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language’ published in 1985.

The oldest British account of deaf people signing to each other occurs in Richard Carew’s ‘Survey of Cornwall’ published in 1602.  He describes a signed conversation between Edward Bone of Landoc, servant to Sir Peter Courtenay, and his friend John Kempe.  Bone is also reported to have used signs to relay local news to his master who was Member of Parliament for Cornwall.

Other accounts exist that suggest  the authorities were generally prepared to accommodate the use of sign language.  In 1576, the parish register of St Martin’s Church in Leicester recorded the marriage of Thomas Tilsye and Ursula Russel, at which the groom used signs “of his own accorde” to make his vows.  The Bishop of Lincoln, the Mayor of Leicester, and a local lawyer had been consulted beforehand and given their approval.  And, at an Old Bailey trial in 1786, when John Ruston was called as a witness for the Crown, his sister Martha told the Court that she and John were able “to understand each other by means of certain arbitrary signs and motions which time and necessity had invented between them”.  The Court over-ruled the defending counsel’s objection and John was sworn in, with Martha as his interpreter.

When the large residential schools and missions for deaf people were established in the 19th century, deaf people came together in greater numbers than ever before.  This was the beginning of today’s Deaf Community and the point at which a national sign language began to emerge.  The terms ‘British Sign Language’ and ‘BSL’ were introduced in 1975 when research into the linguistics of BSL began.

BSL was used in the early schools for deaf children and an increasing number of people learnt the language until the end of the 19th century.  Then in 1880, at an international conference in Milan, a group of teachers working with deaf children – who believed the teaching of sign language was detrimental to the acquisition of spoken language – voted that sign language should no longer be taught in schools.

This decision affected most European countries.  In England it meant that only spoken and written English were taught (the ‘oral method’), and the use of signing in schools was actively discouraged.  This ‘oral method’ of educating deaf children remained dominant for almost 100 years.  Then, in 1979, Dr R. Conrad’s book ‘The Deaf School Child’ revealed that profoundly deaf children were leaving school with a median reading age of less than nine years.  With the realisation that the oral method was failing not all but many deaf children, attitudes towards the use of BSL in schools began to change and become more positive.

Over the last decades, BSL has gained a great deal in popularity and influence.  It is frequently seen on television, both in programmes with sign language interpreters to give sign language users access to the programme and in programmes that are specifically targeted at deaf people.  The 2003 Communications Act has set targets for the proportion of television programmes to be signed which the broadcasting companies must meet.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act has also boosted the growth of BSL.  It requires service providers to make reasonable provision for disabled users to access their services, and an ever-increasing number of organisations – for instance,  theatres, museums, heritage sites and public buildings – are now providing sign language interpreters or signed videos.

An increase in the numbers of deaf people training as BSL tutors has lead to an establishment of BSL classes all over the UK.  However the number of fully qualified BSL interpreters in limited, with only 1 interpreter to every 275 BSL user.

Like spoken language, BSL has many regional variations in the same way that spoken languages have different dialects. In different parts of the country there are different signs for the same words.  For example there are 10-12 variations for the word ‘holiday’.

In March 2003 the government formally recognised BSL as a language in its own right and allocated £1 million funding for initiatives to support its promotion.

Books/chapters for further reading

Baker, C, and Battison, R.  Sign language and the Deaf Community.  National Association of the Deaf, 1980. Pages 233-244.  Brennan, M. and Hayhurst, A.B.  The renaissance of British Sign Language.

BRENNAN M, HAYHURST A.  The renaissance of British Sign Language. In BAKER C, BATTISON R.  Sign language and the Deaf Community.  1980,  National Association of the Deaf.  pp. 233-244.

Deuchar, M.  British Sign Language.  Routledge & Kegan Paul,  1984. Chapter 2.  The origin and use of BSL.

Jackson, P.  A pictorial history of Deaf Britain.   Deafprint Winsford,  2001.

            Chapter 1.  Deaf people before 1760.

            Chapter 2.  British Sign Language.

Miles, D. British Sign Language – A Beginner’s Guide. BBC Books, 1988

SPENCE R SUTTON- British manual alphabets in the education of deaf people since the 17th century. In: MONAGHAN L et al.  Many ways to be deaf.  2003, Gallaudet College Press. pp. 25-48.  RNID Library location: UTB TNX



One Response to “A Brief History of BSL”

  • 1
    Alison wrote on 7 July 2012:

    “In March 2003 the government formally recognised BSL as a language in its own right and allocated £1 million funding for initiatives to support its promotion.”

    If I recall correctly, this was eventually £1.5 million. The allocation figure was modified on account of the bids received.