bsl linguistics

BSL Linguistics: what it is and why it matters

If you have recently started learning British Sign Language (BSL), you may have come across the term ‘BSL linguistics’. You might be wondering what BSL linguistics is and why it is important. In this article, we will briefly explain what BSL linguistics is, why it is important, and how it can help you become a better signer and communicator. So, let’s dive in!

What Is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the study of language and aims to explain the rules of language and how the different elements work together. It includes various topics, from the structure of words and sentences to the social and cultural aspects of language use.

There are different types of linguistics, such as sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. BSL linguistics, in particular, refers to studying the structure and use of British Sign Language. It will also include elements of psychology and sociolinguistics too.

It is focused on understanding how sign language works rather than telling you how it should be used. BSL linguists use various methods, including observation and analysis of natural language use, to study BSL as a complex and dynamic language system. They are interested in how signs are formed, how they combine to create communication, and how language use varies across social and cultural contexts.

Why Is It Important To Understand BSL Linguistics?

Understanding linguistics gives you a deeper understanding of how BSL works and how it is used in everyday communication.

It also helps the deaf community challenge common misconceptions about sign languages and deafness more broadly. For example, many hearing people assume that sign languages are universal or that deaf people communicate in a more “visual” or “gestural” way. BSL linguistics research has shown that sign language users can create complex sentences. Sign languages are fully-fledged languages that are used by deaf communities around the world.

You become a better signer and communicator by understanding the structure and usage of signs and sentences. Learning BSL linguistics has helped learners, interpreters, and professionals understand:

  • How BSL is different from English
  • Why visualisation is important
  • How BSL changes over time

The important grammatical features in BSL includes handshapes, timelines, placement, verbs, and different types of signs.

How Is BSL Different From English?

There are several differences between BSL and English:

  • The grammar rules differ for BSL, e.g., sign order differs from English word order.
  • There is not always a (one word-one sign) equivalent. For example, there is no clear sign for the word ‘vehicle.’
  • BSL has multi-channel signs for which there is no easy translation into English.

What Is Visualisation?

Visualisation is the process by which signers create visually correct images, concepts and descriptions (formally or informally) when signing.

Unless we can create the image, concept or description (formally or informally) in a visually correct sign, the meaning is lost (even if all BSL features have been used correctly). Good visualisation techniques are the key to clear sign production. If used well, a deaf person can fully visualise and re-create the original message for themselves.

Context in BSL

A quick note about context: Signs must be used in the right context. If correctly used, the right message will be given.

In English, we use one word with several meanings. Even when spelt the same and sound the same, words in English will be used correctly automatically. In BSL, we use different signs depending on the context.

For example – ‘back’ can mean:

  • Reverse back down the driveway
  • Pain in my back
  • I will back you up
  • Please put the book back

How Does BSL Change Over Time?

All languages change over time, and BSL is no exception. Languages change for several reasons. For example, new words relating to science, technology and medicine are constantly added as we learn more about the world.

There are also cultural changes where words change their meaning with each generation. For example, the word ‘sick’ means ill or vomiting. It is also the slang equivalent, meaning outstanding.

BSL is no different and adapts, too. For example, the signs for phones have changed over the years. Even the word ‘phone’ is rarely used these days. Most BSL users would sign ‘mobile ‘

Some signs are no longer in everyday use. For example, no one uses a minicom or fax, so signs adapt to changing language use as much as English does.

What Are The Grammatical Features Of BSL?

The grammatical features of BSL include:

  • handshapes,
  • lip patterns,
  • facial expressions,
  • placement,
  • eye gaze,
  • body movement,
  • verbs,
  • negation

and topic-comment structure……phew, that’s a lot!

This is a summary, and we do not plan to go into any detail (as we leave that to the experts at DCAL). But it would be fair to say that BSL is more than individual signs, which is why deaf tutors are the best-qualified people to teach BSL. Linguistic research over many years has helped us to understand BSL grammar.

A Brief Summary Of Some BSL Features

Handshapes: correct handshapes are essential. They are the building blocks of BSL and are used in various ways, such as representing objects or showing an object’s movement, to name a few. The location, movement and orientation of handshapes help create a vast signing vocabulary.

Placement: placement can describe where an object is and its movements from one place to another. The creative use of placement can enable a deaf person to tell a rich and complex story. The phrase “a picture paints a thousand words” is apt for BSL as the visual detail often surpasses what can be described in words.

BSL verbs: There are three types of verbs in BSL: agreement, spatial and plain verbs. Some verbs are directional when signed. For example, to show the verb ‘to fly’ in BSL, you show a plane going from one place (on a map) to another.

Aspect, manner and mood: In English, these would be considered to be adverbs. Aspect lets you know when something happened.

Manner is ‘how’ something happened. Fluent signers can change a sign so you know if something happened quickly, confidently, carefully and so on.

Mood relates to the emotions or attitude of the signer. Fluent signers can show when they were fed up or if they performed an action happily and so on.

Roles shift: Role shift shows you who is talking. It can show a person’s communication style, emotions and dialogue just by shifting your body, head movements or eye gaze.

Timelines: Timelines show us when something happened or when something is going to happen.

Multi-channel signs: There are over 100 multi-channel signs. These signs do not have an equivalent (one word = one sign) translation in English.

Sign types: There are different types of signs. Number signs, name signs, and compound signs (which are two signs put together to form one sign) are just a few of the different sign types in BSL.

BSL word order: word order or, rather, sign order is different from English. Sign order is the one feature that most students struggle with. 

If you want to learn more, we recommend “The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction” by Rachel Sutton-Spence. You can order it via your local library or via Amazon.

BSL linguistics is a fascinating and vital field of study. It can help us understand and appreciate the complexity of British Sign Language and the diversity of Deaf culture more broadly.

By understanding BSL linguistics, you can become a more effective and sensitive signer. So, if you’re interested in learning more about BSL linguistics, there’s no better time to start!

Articles that you may find useful:

Level 3 grammar handout by Deaf Support. This document has very kindly been shared by Deaf Support

BSL level 3

BSL Level 4 courses