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The Building Blocks of BSL

The earlier and somewhat dismissive assumption that sign language is merely the use of gestures to make visual representation of events has some truth, in that all sign languages have an element of visual imagery, particularly when new signs are coined. This is likely to evolve and change with use, although some signs, like TREE and BUTTERFLY become part of the established lexicon, having kept their visual imagery.

Researchers use the term fixed or established lexicon to refer to signs that function in a similar way to words in spoken language such as may be found in a dictionary or book of sign vocabulary, but these are only part of the story. Sign language also has an enormous degree of creativity and flexibility.

Extract from SIGNS OF HEALTH; a pocket medical sign language guide, 1999

"Sign language learners frequently ask the question 'what is the sign for….' And, because of their experience of spoken languages, constantly look for word equivalents in BSL. However, as described in the Introduction, sign languages tend to be more flexible, inventive and less word based than spoken languages, allowing users to create signs on the spot, as they are needed. This is not just random mime and gesture, but involves consistent use of the building blocks of BSL to produce meaningful combinations that may be unique to that situation and never used before."

The chief components of these building blocks are;

  • the HANDSHAPES
  • the PLACEMENT or LOCATION of those handshapes in space or on the head, face or body,
  • combined with the specific ORIENTATION/DIRECTION
  • and type of MOVEMENT

Added to these manual factors are the NON-MANUAL FEATURES of the head, face and body which can add or change meaning, to show, for example, the difference between

  • a statement and a question
  • to show degree or intensity or
  • to change a positive statement into a negative

The order of the message may also be completely different to that used in a spoken language. This can be at the level of the construction of events (at which point of a story you start and finish), or in the order of signs themselves, as in a phrase such as "Where are you from?" which may be signed FROM WHERE YOU? for example.

A spoken sequence such as "I came downstairs when I'd showered" would usually be signed with the shower first, followed by coming downstairs, consistent with the real sequence of events. A different example would be a statement such as "there were 5 people sitting round the table" In BSL the existence of the table would be established first, before the people could be located round it.

Deaf people's way of relating to the world involves a visuality - a different conceptual base that hearing people may not be used to and need to clue into.

A comprehensive description of BSL grammar and vocabulary is given in the British Deaf Association's Dictionary of British Sign Language/ English, published by Faber and Faber 1992.

The only way to learn BSL, as with any language is through classes and direct experience, but reading about and sampling some of its features is a useful starting point and can stimulate the appetite for more.


Author: Cath Smith
Source: DeafSign.Com
Date Published @ DS: 13/12/2000 



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