What is BSL and what are its origins?

British Sign Language (BSL) is a natural language with its own vocabulary and grammar, which has emerged from Deaf people’s communication over centuries, and is not a representation of English on the hands.

While there have always been Deaf people in society, in the West the first written evidence of the existence of deaf individuals or groups communicating by gesture or signs can be found with the rise of the Mediterranean societies in the 5th century BC.

The first recorded description of signs in Britain is from the register of the marriage of Thomas Tillsye and Ursula Russell in 1575 (Sutton-Spence and Woll, 1999). Other early accounts include an entry in Pepys’ diary of how Sir George Downing and his deaf servant conversed using signs about the Great Fire of London in 1666 (cited in Sutton-Spence and Woll 1999). The first school for deaf children was opened in 1760 in Edinburgh by Thomas Braidwood (Jackson, 2001), using both speech and signing (Kyle and Woll, 1985).

The name ‘British Sign Language’ was first published in 1975 in an article where it was argued that deaf children should have access to sign language in education.

With more than 60,000 using BSL as their first or preferred language and around 125,000 people in total able to converse in BSL in 21st century UK, BSL was finally recognised as a language by the Department of Works and Pensions on 18 March 2003. Moves are continuing, particularly in Scotland, to have this recognition enshrined in legislation. Because of Britain’s colonial history, closely related languages can be found in Australia (Australian Sign Language or Auslan), New Zealand (NZ Sign Language), Malta (Maltese Sign Language) and in some parts of South Africa, India, and Canada (Maritime Sign Language).

In Britain, it is possible to obtain BSL language qualifications awarded by the BSL Academy or Signature. Interpreting qualifications are also offered by colleges and universities in Britain and awarded by Signature, and as NVQs.