Language & Communication12th October 2013

BSL World - Richness of BSL

Richness, complexity and accuracy of BSL

by Linda Day & Tessa Padden

We all know that language gets passed down through the generations. It is normal for languages to change over time, though at different rates. For example, Japanese has changed relatively little over 1,000 years, while English has evolved rapidly.

Language is a living thing, and no two individuals use language in the same way. The vocabulary and phrases people use depend on where they live, their age, educational level, and other factors. Through our interactions, we pick up new words and sayings and integrate them into our speech. Teens and young adults, for example, often use different words and phrases from their parents.

Sometimes language changes for the better making things easier to say. However, some changes occur through laziness or use of new communication platforms, such as social media. Similar things are happening with BSL, with dramatic effect, as few people are aware of the rules of BSL grammar or sign formation.

Take the signs for family members. The sign for ‘mother’ in most regions is to finger-spell the first letter - ‘M’ - tapping it twice on your palm with accompanying mouth pattern - apart from the London region, where they also use the ‘M’ hand-shape, but tap the hand twice on the head.  For ‘father’ and ‘daughter’, you fingerspell the first letters - ‘F’ & ‘D’ respectively, tapping them twice. For ‘Son’, the word should be spelled out in full, S-O-N. Unfortunately, what has been creeping in, is that some people actually use the London/South East regional sign for ‘boy’ to sign ‘son’. This creates confusion, as other regions have different signs for ‘boy’. A lot of hearing people are quite happy to avoid finger spelling, and so they opt for the London/South East regional sign for ‘boy’, as opposed to spelling the whole word correctly.

The late BSL poet and teacher Dorothy Miles told us during teacher training that the rules for family names should always be to fingerspell the first letter for ‘mother’, ‘father’ and ‘daughter’ and the full word for ‘S-O-N’.  We hope that once people are aware of the correct way to sign ‘son’, they will go back to finger spelling the word, otherwise people’s pride in their regional signs may be lost.

Another sign in which there is quite a bit of variety across different regions is ‘home’. In the past two years, some people have been opting for just one variety, which has actually been taken from Makaton.

BSL is a fully-fledged language. It has a rich variety of regional signs for ‘home’, and also for conveying its different meanings. To choose just one sign to cover all the different meanings not only diminishes the richness of regional variations, but it damages the fundamental way in which BSL works.

Our Signworld website contains many examples of how the term ‘home’ is used. Subscribers can use the word-search facility to check them out, and to find the regional variations for how ‘home’ is signed. None of the 20 regional presenters on the Signworld website uses the Makaton sign! For more information, see

Article by Linda Day & Tessa Padden

posted in Community / Language & Communication

12th October 2013