Language & Communication17th November 2013

BSL World - Dealing with New Technology Words

New technology words create a challenge to BSL

by Tessa Padden & Linda Day (Signworld)


Technology is constantly changing and whilst much of it is beneficial, it also presents new challenges to people who use BSL. The 20th and 21st Centuries have seen the most bewilderingly rapid changes and it seems the pace of change just gets faster and faster.

When something new comes along, especially something technical, we usually need to find a new name for it. There are some exceptions, such as the good old English word ‘film’, which managed to survive and adapt and take on completely new meanings in the 20th century.

Often, in English, scientists and technologists have gone back to ancient languages, such as Latin and especially Greek, to find word elements that could be combined to form new meanings for new technologies. The word ‘technology’ itself is formed from two Greek parts – techne meaning 'art, skill, cunning of hand', and the word ending logia, which has come to be used to mean ‘the study of’.

But in BSL, what we sign is the separated fingers of the two hands coming down towards each other and meshing together like the cogs of a machine – a sign that can also still be used to mean ‘machine’ - and the mouth pattern of the English word ‘technology’. So the same sign with the mouth pattern ‘machine’ has a different meaning when the mouth pattern ‘technology’ is used. So where English has borrowed from Greek, BSL here is borrowing from English in the mouth patterns.

But there is something else in the BSL as well. When the fingers of the two hands come down together toward each other like the cogs of a machine; that is based on the appearance of a machine, or a key part of a machine. At some time in history Deaf people have looked at machines, seen how they worked and created a sign based on what they looked like and how they worked.

One interesting area of technical vocabulary is the group of words in English beginning with the prefix ‘tele-’, such as ‘telephone’ and ‘television’ – and the even older word ‘telescope’. Tele- in word combinations like this comes from the Greek word tele, meaning ‘far’. So ‘telephone’ means an instrument that enables you to hear sounds from far away, from another Greek word, phone, meaning ‘a sound’.

But in BSL the various signs that have been used over the years for ‘telephone’ do not contain this idea of ‘far’ at all. They have always been based on the appearance of the telephone receiver and the way it was used and handled, from the old-fashioned phone with a separate earpiece and mouthpiece, to the receiver with the earpiece at one end and the mouthpiece at the other, and now to the new generation of mobile phones.

In English, the word ‘computer’ has evolved and survived over the years to mean everything from what was basically a calculating machine for doing complex sums, to today’s computers, which do all sorts of other things. It came originally from the Latin word computare – to calculate or estimate. But the BSL sign for ‘computer’ doesn’t refer to what goes on inside the computer at all. It’s based on how the hands used the traditional computer keyboard, again combined with the English mouth pattern.

The latest generation of technological devices, software and social media, is challenging Deaf people to come up with new signs all the time. The sign for ‘laptop’ is based on the physical object itself and how it opens out. ‘iPad’ is based on the movement of a finger on the flat screen of the iPad. Other signs, like the most commonly used one for ‘Facebook’, go back to another kind of borrowing from – or literal translation of – the two English words, ‘face’ and ‘book’.

The key thing is that the best signs in BSL or any other sign language should come from the felt and observed experience of Deaf people themselves. Those are the signs that will be most ‘organic’, will feel most natural and will be readily understood and agreed by other Deaf people.

BSL World is a regular column written for SLFirst by Linda Day and Tessa Padden from Signworld about issues relating to British Sign Language

Article by Tessa Padden & Linda Day (Signworld)

posted in Community / Language & Communication

17th November 2013