The Beginnings

Sign languages are natural human languages, with their own vocabularies and grammars. They arise wherever Deaf communities come into existence. There is no universal sign language: each community has its own language but these are not manual versions of the spoken or written language used by the hearing communities around them.

BSL is the creation of the British Deaf community and this exhibition traces is history from the earliest references to signing in Britain until the present day – and into the future.

There are an estimated 50,000-70,000 people in Britain who use BSL as their preferred language. Like most sign languages, BSL is a minority language used by a community which has experience discrimination over many centuries.

All sign languages have their origins in the gestural communication developed between deaf children and hearing adults. Unlike sign languages, home sign does not pass from generation to generation, is not shared by one large group, and is not the same over a community of signers. However, home signs are the starting point for the sign languages that develop when deaf people come together.

Accounts as early as the 15th century describe deaf people using signs. The first description of those signs appears in the Marriage Register of St Martin’s, Leicester, 1576. This describes the vows signed by Thomas Tillsye.