Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience


Neural correlates of British sign language comprehension

MacSweeney, M.F., Woll, B., Campbell, R., Calvert, G.A., McGuire, P.K., David, A.S., Simmons, A., Brammer, M.J. (2002). Neural correlates of British sign language comprehension: spatial processing demands of topographic language.. J COGNITIVE NEUROSCI, 14 (7), 1064-1075.

Supplementary Materials

This page supplies the British Sign Language glosses for the BSL stimuli used in MacSweeney et al. (JOCN, 14 (7)). Click on any of the English sentences below to see the BSL translation in still images with glosses. A glossary for the terms used in the BSL transcriptions can be found below.

Should you have any queries regarding these materials please contact Dr. Mairead MacSweeney (m.macsweeney@ucl.ac.uk) or Prof. Bencie Woll (b.woll@city.ac.uk).

Please note: the glosses provided below are optimised for desktop computers and may not display adequately on mobile phones and tablets.


In all signed languages used by deaf people signs are executed in 'sign space' in front of the body. Some signed sentences use this space to map detailed 'real-world' spatial relationships directly. Such sentences can be considered to exploit sign space 'topographically'. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we explored the extent to which increasing the topographic processing demands of signed sentences was reflected in the differential recruitment of brain regions in deaf and hearing native signers of British Sign Language (BSL). When BSL signers performed a sentence-anomaly judgement task the occipito-temporal junction was activated bilaterally to a greater extent for topographic than non-topographic processing. The differential role of movement in the processing of the two sentence types may account for this finding. In addition enhanced activation was observed in left inferior and superior parietal lobules during processing of topographic BSL sentences. We argue that the left parietal lobe is specifically involved in processing the precise configuration and location of hands in space to represent objects, agents and actions. Importantly, no differences in these regions were observed when hearing people heard and saw English translations of these sentences. Despite the high degree of similarity in the neural systems underlying signed and spoken languages, exploring the linguistic features which are unique to each of these broadens our understanding of the systems involved in language comprehension.

Glossary of terms used in the BSL translations


Signs are conventionally represented in uppercase letters (BOOK, TABLE).

( ) Text in brackets indicates additional information.

- - Hyphens are used where more than one English word is required to gloss a single sign.

Arrows have been added to indicate movement where necessary.

At beginning of line

D - dominant hand. This signer is left-handed so in these examples, the left hand is dominant.
ND - non-dominant hand. In these examples, the right hand is non-dominant.
Neither ND or D is indicated in 2-handed signs or where there is no contrastive use of the hands.

Other symbols

XX-Cl indicates where a classifier substitutes for a noun. A subscript R or L after the classifier indicates if it is located to the signer's left or right.

FLAT-Obj-cl is a flat hand, fingers extended and together, used to substitute for members of the class of flat objects (e.g. BOOK, TABLE, CAR, etc.)

THIN-Obj-cl is an extended index finger, used to substitute for members of the class of long, thin objects (e.g. STICK, PEN, PENCIL, TOOTHBRUSH, etc.)

3D-cl is a 'clawed' hand, fingers spread and curved, used to substitute for members of the class of objects perceived as having length, width and height (e.g. HOUSE, TOWN, STATION, etc)

IX (Index) is used when the signer points at a location in space in order to assign it to a specific referent or to refer to a location previously assigned to that referent. A subscript R or L after the Index indicates if it is located to the signer's left or right.

.... (dotted line) is used to indicate when a sign is articulated and the handshape is maintained on one hand while the other hand produces a different sign. For example in "The book is next to the pen on the table", the classifier for BOOK is maintained with the dominant hand, while the non-dominant hand is used to sign PEN and the classifier for PEN. The start and endpoints of the dotted line indicate when the signer begins and the ends the sign.