Handshapes in BSL are the secret building blocks to unlocking your fluency in sign language. BSL is a rich and expressive visual language with a complex array of signs that centre around 40+ fundamental handshapes. Whether you’re learning BSL or simply curious about this vibrant language, understanding these building blocks is essential for fluency.
Each handshape can convey a multitude of meanings depending on its location and orientation in the signing space. For instance, a flat hand can represent an object lying on a surface, whereas an index finger might indicate direction or refer to a person. The subtleties of each handshape are a fundamental part of the language, providing a clear and efficient way to convey information without the need for speech.
In this article, we cover 21 of the most commonly used handshapes with examples of signs that are created with each handshape:
- BSL uses over 40 core handshapes as the foundation for its extensive range of signs.
- Handshapes in BSL are combined with other linguistic elements such as orientation and location to express a full spectrum of meanings.
- Learning the various handshapes is crucial to becoming truly proficient in BSL.
Flat Hand BSL Signs
The flat hand is the cornerstone of many signs. The flat handshape can be used on its own or with the other hand to express something different each time the handshape is used.
If you include the signs where both hands are used, signs that can be created using the flat hand include: arise, oven, introduce, give, hill, up, future, grow (see timelines), child, flat, demand, barrier, wall, fish, danger, mirror, bored, thank (you), school, insurance, happy, history, blue, flag, slipper, fly (as in flap wings), new, unemployed, home, must, Sunday, sandwich, house, army, garden, hospital, door(s) and many more. You can see from the range of signs that BSL is complex!
Making the Flat Handshape
To make the flat handshape, extend your fingers and thumb so they are straight and held together. The handshape will change location and orientation depending on the sign you want to create. The orientation and location of your flat hand can change the meaning dramatically. So, one minute, you might be signing about a book lying flat on a table; the next, you’re showing how a car speeds away on the road.
Flat Handshape signs in action
- Book: Place your palms against each other in front of you, then open out in front of you as if opening a book
- Table: Use both flat hands with palms downwards and moving out to the side to show the surface of a table.
- Ceiling: Lift a flat hand above your head and move from your head outwards in front of you as if to trace the ceiling overhead.
Index Finger BSL Signs
The index finger handshape can be used on its own or with your other hand to express something different each time it is used. The range of signs that can be created using the handshape include: follow, walk, turn away, meet, identify, improve, bully, impact, persuade, recognise, caught, knitting and miss (an event) among many others.
Making the Index Finger Handshape
Simply put, the index finger handshape is made by extending your index finger while keeping the rest of your fingers curled into the palm. The index finger can be used to describe people, trace the shape of an object and point to objects and people in the space in front of the body. You can create a whole range of signs by adding facial expressions and changing the location and orientation.
Index Finger Handshape in action
Here’s where it gets practical! Think about these situations:
- Pointing to yourself to sign “I” or “me.”
- Signing the number “one” by just holding up that trusty index finger.
- Tracing the shape of a plate
Y Handshape BSL Signs
The Y handshape isn’t just a random gesture. The Y handshape can be used on its own or with the other hand to express a range of signs. Signs that can be created using the handshape include: plane, perhaps, which, kettle, iron, scan, suspicious, suit, wine, smart, cow, celebrate, party, devil, or to show a phone ringing among many others.
Making the Y Handshape
Extend your thumb and little finger out while keeping the rest of your fingers folded down. As with all the other handshapes, you can create different signs if you change the location, orientation and facial expressions associated with the sign.
Y Handshape in action:
Here are a few examples of its use:
- Which?: The Y handshape makes several short movements from side to side.
- Kettle: The Y handshape is held in front of the body and moves downwards as if pouring from a kettle.
- Wine: The handshape is held in front of the mouth and tipped up as if drinking wine.
L Handshape BSL Signs
Making the L Handshape
Extend your thumb horizontally and your index finger outwards to make the L handshape, creating a right angle that looks like the letter ‘L’. The remaining fingers should be comfortably folded into your palm.
- Thumb: Extended outwards horizontally
- Index finger: Points upwards
- Remaining fingers: Folded into palm
Examples Using L Handshape
Here are a few examples of signs using the L handshape:
- Camera: The L handshape sits on the back of your other hand
- Delicious/tasty: the hand is held with the index fingertip touching the chin, then you make a short movement away from your chin and curl your index finger
- Too much: Both hands are held in front of the body with the L handshape. You make several short movements away and out to the side.
‘O’ Handshape BSL Signs
The ‘O’ handshape is used for a number of signs including: pin, sew, seeds, switch on or off, accurate, tea, café, hair, darts, flower, benefit, improve, socks, politics, relationship, delay, and many others. If ever you needed proof that BSL has a vast vocabulary, this is it!
Making the ‘O’ Handshape
Simply bring the tips of your thumb and index finger together while the other three fingers are curled down, like you’re holding a tiny bubble. Voilà, that’s your ‘O’.
The ‘O’ Handshape in action:
Here are some signs where ‘O’ pops up:
- Knot: the hands make small circles in front of the body and then move away to the side slightly
- Coin: Imagine showing the size of a coin with ‘O’
Flower: use the ‘O’ handshape to tap one side of the mouth and then move to tap the other side.
Full ‘O’ Handshape BSL Signs
The full O shape can be used to show the shape and size of a circular object. It can also show how an object is handled. For example, throwing a javelin. The signs that can be created with this handshape include: shower, beautiful, magic, light (on), nobody, binoculars, the new sign for Google and many others
Making the O Handshape
The extended fingers are held together and touch the extended thumb to form a circle.
The full O Handshape in action:
- Google: both hands form the ‘O’ handshape and are held in front of the eyes (like binoculars).
- Nothing: both hands form the ‘O’ shape and make small circles in front of the body
Closed fist Handshape BSL Signs
The range of signs that can be created using the handshape include: black, bank, cupboard, washing, hungry, number, power, strong, pig, printing, stupid, selfish, train, your, mine/my, ours, chair, carpenter, break, cold, gold, make, repair, paper, remember, will, win, Christmas and many others.
Making the Closed Handshape:
All you need to do is curl your fingers into your palm and ensure your thumb wraps around the side or over your fingers. That’s it!
Closed fist Handshape in action:
To give you a better idea, here’s a quick glimpse at some signs featuring the closed handshape:
- Train: Your fist handshape moves forward from the side of your body.
- Cold: Shivering with a clenched fist to showcase how freezing you are.
- Hungry: Rub your fist handshape up and down your stomach and abdomen.
There are variations of the closed handshape that involve the thumb being lifted up slightly from the hand. These signs include: help, knowledge, suitable, cheat, hard, agree, nice, wise, neighbour, congratulations, farmer, letter, regularly, operation, start, proper and many others.
Closed Handshape or Irish ‘T’ BSL Signs
The closed handshape is also known as the Irish ‘T’ handshape. The range of signs that can be created using this handshape include: zip, golf club, small hammer, curtain, measure, key, pen, table tennis, badminton, squash, string, (wind a) watch, Holding paper, newspaper and many other signs.
Making the Closed Handshape:
To make a closed (Irish T) handshape, your bent index finger is extended from the fist, enclosing the top of the extended thumb. The rest of your fingers should be comfortably closed.
Closed fist Handshape in action:
- Cooking: you move the handshape back and forth in front of you as if you are moving a pan backwards and forwards on a cooker
- Toothbrush: you hold the handshape in front of your mouth and make short up and down movements as if brushing your teeth
- Control: both hands with the Irish ‘T’ handshape are held in front of the body. You make alternate backwards and forwards with your hands.
Flat Open Handshape BSL Signs
The flat open handshape can be used on its own or with your other hand to express many different signs. The range of signs that can be created using the handshape include: sea, tree, queue, fire, like, how much? amazed, surprise, want, green, rain, Sign Language, pregnant, five, family, local, cinema, America and many more.
Making the open Handshape:
To create the “Open Flat Hand” shape, you’ll stretch your fingers out straight and hold them slightly apart.
flat open Handshape in action:
- Pregnant: the dominant open hand is held over the lower chest (palm facing towards the body). You then move your open hand slowly, away from the body.
- Tree: the dominant hand is lifted with fingers pointing up. Your hand makes several short movements from side to side at the wrist
- Rain: both hands are held out in front of the body with palms facing downwards. You make short up and downwards movement from the wrists.
‘N’ Handshape BSL Signs
The ‘N’ handshape is another common handshape. The range of signs that can be created using the handshape include: name, dinner, father, deaf, dog, soup, assessment, butter, family, river, path, corridor, knife, cutlery and many others
Making the ‘N’ Handshape:
Your index finger and middle finger are held together extended from the fist. The rest of the the fingers are curled into the palm.
The ‘N’ Handshape in action:
- Name: you hold the N handshape facing your forehead and then twist away at the wrist
- Dog: both hands use the N handshape and are placed in front of the body, facing downwards. Your hands make two short down movements
- River: both hands with N handshape are held side by side in front of the body. You then make movements from side to side while moving hands away from the body.
‘V’ Handshape BSL Signs
The range of signs that can be created using the handshape include: sing, song, doctor, police, look, watch, view, again, repeat, stand, read, plumber, sight seeing, two o’clock, hairdressing, glasses, plan, stand, vegetable and many others
Making the ‘V’ Handshape:
The handshape is made with an extended index and middle finger held slightly apart with the remaining fingers closed into a fist. Imagine you’re creating Churchill’s victory sign or a peace sign!
Examples Using V Handshape
- Stand: the V handshape on the dominant hand is placed on the flat open palm of the non-dominant hand
- Sing: the V handshape (with the palm facing towards you) moves up and away from your face while making small clockwise circles. You can use both hands to do this sign.
- Look: your V handshape is held with your index finger at cheek level moving away from your face
Little finger Handshape BSL Signs
The little finger handshape is also referred to as the ‘bad’ handshape as it is associated with lots of negative words. The range of signs that can be created using the handshape include: bad, swear, wrong, awful, ill or sick, terrible, weak, bitter, criticise, unfortunately, blame and many more. There are other signs associated with this handshape that are not negative such as sheep.
Making the Little Finger Handshape:
You extend the little finger from the fist.
Examples Using Little Finger Handshape
- Blame: your hands are held side by side in front of your body. Then your hands make alternate circles whilst in front of your body.
- Sheep: both hands are upright and make small circles to the side of your forehead
- Sick: the little finger of both hands rest on your chest and then you make a short downward movement. Then repeat the sign again.
the bent Handshape BSL Signs
The range of signs you can create with the bent handshape include: outdoors, abroad, remind, cheese, tall, enough, fed up, add, arrive, not bothered, naughty, apart, save, equality, welcome, level, hungry, morning and many more.
Making the Bent Handshape:
To create the ‘bent handshape’, the hand is held flat, with fingers together and then bent at the palm knuckles.
Examples Using Bent Handshape:
- Morning: your bent handshape touches your chest on one side and then moves and touches the opposite side
- Abroad: your bent handshape is held in front of your body, with your palm facing away from you. you then make two short movements away from you.
- Tall: use the bent handshape to show the height of someone standing next to you
The C handshape BSL Signs
Making the ‘C’ Handshape:
Curve your index finger and thumb to create a shape like a ‘C’. The rest of your fingers should be tucked into a fist shape
the C handshape in action:
- Coffee: hold your C handshape in front of your body, lift it up and tip it towards your face as if drinking from a cup.
- Person: hold the C handshape in front of you so it looks like the C is on its side. Move the C handshape downwards once.
- Daddy: make the C handshape on the dominant hand and make the pointed handshape with the non dominant hand. Bring them together to form the letter ‘D’ and tap twice for the sign ‘daddy’
The full C handshape BSL Signs
The range of signs you can create with the full C handshape include: elephant, salt or pepper, rainbow, asleep, memory, giraffe, money, shoe, jar, coach, brick, pillow and headphones among many others.
Making the Full ‘C’ Handshape:
It’s simple! Just curve your fingers and thumb to create a round shape like a ‘C’. This is a fundamental size and shape classifier in BSL and is essential for expressing accuracy in your signing.
full C handshape in action:
- Headphones: use both hands and hold the full C handshape over each ear.
- Coach: hold both C handshapes, one in front of the other in front of your body. Then make a short movement so both hands move away from each other as if following the outline shape of a coach.
- Pepper: hold the C handshape in front of you and twist your hand down from the wrist as if you’re tipping a pepper shaker. Then two short movements downwards as if you’re shaking pepper out of the shaker.
Closed hand Handshape BSL Signs
Making the closed Handshape:
You make a fist and keep your thumb gently resting on your index finger
the closed hand in action
- Hippo: put both closed handshapes together in front of you, one on top of the other. Then move them up and down from the wrist to imitate a hippo’s mouth opening and closing.
- Sold: bounce the closed handshape of your dominant hand on and off the flat palm of your non dominant hand.
- Brother: both closed hands need to be touching and then rubbed up and down along the closed fists.
claw handshape BSL Signs
The signs that can be made with a clawed hand include: animal, orange, anger, complain, jealous, worried, concerned, complicated, planet, ball, clouds, (bad) mood, ribs, stripes, places and may others
Making the Claw Handshape:
To create the claw handshape, think about how you’d show a little animal with paws, like a cat ready to pounce. Here’s how to do it:
- Bend your fingers: Curl your fingers towards your palm.
- Thumb position: Your thumb can either tuck in or stand out, depending on the sign.
This handshape forms the basis of many signs where you need to show you are holding or grasping something.
The Claw Handshape in action:
- Animal: hold both clawed handshapes out in front of you, then move one claw alternately to show an animal moving forward.
- Cake: place the clawed handshape on your dominant hand on the back of your non dominant hand
- Climb: hold both clawed hands in front of you and move them alternately as if climbing up a wall.
‘Good’ thumb Handshape BSL Signs
Making the thumb up Handshape:
You create a fist with your hand but raise your thumb up from your fist
The thumb up handshape in action:
- Good: this is a pretty universal sign that shows you approve or agree with something.
- Start: use the thumb handshape on the dominant hand to swipe down on the open palm of the non dominant hand
- Difficult: use the thumb handshape on the dominant hand to tap the middle of the open palm on the non-dominant hand.
‘M’ Handshape BSL Signs
The range of signs that can be created with this handshape include: Mum, mother, Monday
Making the ‘M’ Handshape:
You hold your first three fingers together and upright. Your little finger and thumb are bent and tucked in to the remaining fist handshape.
The ‘M’ handshape in action:
Mother: tap the ‘M’ handshape of the dominant hand on the open palm of non-dominant hand. Tap the ‘M’ twice.
Monday: tap the ‘M’ handshape of the dominant hand on to the open palm of the non-dominant hand
Open Pinch Handshape BSL Signs
Making the open pinch Handshape:
The open pinch is a variation of the pointed handshape. You extend your index finger and thumb as if to pinch something.
The open pinch handshape in action:
Ability: your hand is held in front of your face and then moves down and away. You close the pinch as your hand moves away.
Bird: the back of the hand is against the side of your mouth. You then open and close the pinch handshape.
Subtitles: your hands are held side by side and move apart. You repeat the sign twice.
Bent ‘V’ Handshape BSL Signs
This is a variation of the V handshape. Some signs that use this handshape include: bus, sit (down), trap, cochlear (implant), lip read, book (an appointment), blind, rubbish, Ireland, Austria, clown, old and travel.
Making the bent ‘V’ Handshape:
When you’re crafting this handshape, you’ll want to hold up your index and middle fingers while slightly bending them, and keep the rest of your fingers closed.
- Thumb: Tucked in or alongside the palm
- Index and Middle Fingers: Bend them slightly to form a ‘V’
- Ring and Little Fingers: Fold them down into your palm
The bent ‘V’ handshape in action:
- Lip read: position to bent V handshape in front of the mouth, with your palm facing towards you, then make small clockwise circles in front of your mouth.
- Evening: your hand is held in front of your nose. You then make short downward movements
- Bus: the hand is held in front of you with the bent V handshape held at shoulder height. You then make a movement away from you.
BSL has so many handshapes!
With over 40 handshapes forming the bedrock of a rich vocabulary, BSL harnesses simplicity and variety like a champ. It differs from American Sign Language (ASL) as BSL has its own unique set of rules and variations for handshapes! Keep an eye out for these subtle changes—they’re the difference between saying “hello” and accidentally asking where the library is!
Researchers in the BSL Corpus Project and other research projects across the UK continue to reveal information about signs, how the Deaf community are adapting and responding to sociolinguistic and cultural changes. Handshape variety is just one of many areas of exploration. So, what’s the takeaway? BSL is a vibrant language rich with handshapes and other linguistic features that connects, informs, and empowers deaf community members.
Frequently Asked Questions
Navigating the visual language of British Sign Language (BSL) can be exciting, and with its unique set of handshapes, knowing where to turn for the right information can make all the difference. Let’s dive in and answer some of your pressing questions.
How many distinct handshapes are commonly used in British Sign Language?
In BSL, the foundation of communication is built on a variety of handshapes. You’ll be working with roughly 40 distinct handshapes, each with its own meaning and nuance. These are the building blocks for thousands of signs you can master.
Where can I find a reliable BSL dictionary to learn more about handshapes?
For those of you seeking a trustworthy resource to enrich your knowledge of BSL handshapes, you’re in luck. The BSL Sign Bank has a range of excellent materials including the voices of Deaf people using BSL. There are also lots of regional videos to watch, that are part of the BSL Corpus project.
Could you explain what classifiers are in the context of BSL handshapes?
BSL classifiers are a type of handshape used to give information about the size, shape, movement, or location of, people or actions. They’re vital for adding clarity to your signed conversations. For more information about classifiers in BSL, you can visit the Scottish Sensory centre.