How is BSL recorded?

By and large signed languages are not written and there is no standard way of writing them down. There is no written version of BSL.

When we talk about literacy in deaf people in the UK, this nearly always refers to reading and writing the dominant spoken language of that community, such as English. This does not mean that it is impossible to record BSL, however.

There are transcription and notation systems for sign languages, but these are mainly used by sign language researchers.

One of these is Stokoe notation. Stokoe notation was the first (Kyle & Woll 1988:88 ff) phonemic script used for sign languages. It was created by William Stokoe for American Sign Language (ASL), with Latin letters and numerals used for the shapes they have in American fingerspelling, and iconic symbols to transcribe the position, movement, and orientation of the hands. It was first published as the organising principle of A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, by Stokoe et al. in 1960. The Stokoe notation was later adapted to British Sign Language (BSL) in Kyle & Woll (1988) and to Australian Aboriginal sign languages in Kendon (1988). The use of Stokoe notation is mostly restricted to linguists and academics.

More accessible to the lay person is Sutton SignWriting. This is a system developed in 1974 by Valerie Sutton that uses iconic symbols to represent the handshapes, movements, and facial expressions of signed languages. Proponents of Sutton SignWriting find they can use the “alphabet” or list of symbols to write any signed language in the world. The system is used to varying degrees in many countries by different institutions and individuals, including in the UK, but opinions differ a great deal about how useful and practical it is.

The lack of a standard notation/transcription system is very noticeable when trying to access printed sign language dictionaries such as the Dictionary of British Sign Language/English (Brien 1992). Photos help but even they can’t provide the same information as a moving image.

By contrast the development of video technology in recent years has made it possible for us to record sign language more directly, via video recording.

New software, such as ELAN, makes it possible to add written information (e.g., translations) to video and to have this written material aligned to the precise point in the video where a specific sign is being produced.

Using digital video and ELAN to record BSL was the primary aim of the British Sign Language Corpus Project (2008-2011). The project is led by staff at DCAL but also includes researchers form Bangor University (Wales), Heriot-Watt University (Scotland), Queens University Belfast (Northern Ireland) and the University of Bristol (England).

The BSL Corpus consists of digital video data showing 249 deaf signers from 8 regions around the UK, with a balance of signers of different ages, genders, and language backgrounds. Signers took part in 4 activities: personal narratives, free conversation, interviews about issues involving deaf identity and language, and a lexical elicitation task where signers were asked to give their signs for 101 concepts. As of summer 2011, these video data are available online.

Between 2011 and 2015, DCAL will use the BSL Corpus to create an online dictionary of around 6000 entries (including video clips showing what each sign looks like). In the future, we will also add the ELAN files to the online collection so that the translations and other written material time-aligned to the BSL video data will be accessible to all.