A Short History Of BSL

Hello, and welcome to this week’s blog, where we will discuss BSL’s history. Throughout this blog, I have referenced different sources, so there will be a bibliography at the end if you want to do further research!

Let’s dive right in

The first record of BSL being used is from the marriage certificate of Thomas Tillsye and Ursula Russel. The exact year of this is unclear, with different sources saying different years. However, it is clear that this took place between 1575-1586. The account of this marriage says, “Thomas, for the expression of his mind instead of words, of his own accord used these signs” (UCL, n.d.).

But how did these signs come about?

“BSL was not invented as an artificial system, but is assumed to have developed spontaneously like spoken language… it seems reasonable to assume that BSL developed when deaf people came together in groups” (Deuchar, 1984, p. 28).

Here we can see the beginnings of both the language of BSL and the deaf community, showing that the two have always been inherently linked together.

We cannot discuss BSL history without mentioning Thomas Braidwood, who opened Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb (an acceptable term for those times) in 1760. This school educated deaf children through speech, lip-reading, and signs. It is suggested that earlier uses of sign language were similar to home signs; so every deaf person communicated differently. However, this combined method meant that deaf students were learning through the same set of signs: helping to create the foundation of one language.

Now for the infamous event of deaf/BSL history: The 1880 Milan Conference. It was:

“An international conference of deaf educators, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. At this conference, held September 6-11, 1880, a declaration was made that oral education was better than manual (sign) education” (Berke, 2014)

The two countries to oppose this declaration were Britain and The United States of America. They were overruled. BSL was banned.

The reign of Oralism began. Deaf children were taught to speak and lip-read exclusively. “the emergence of Oralism…threatened to damage, if not destroy, the whole community” (Ladd, 2003, p. 125).

Many fought for BSL to be re-established. One such organisation was the British Deaf Association, or the BDA (established as the British Deaf and Dumb Association), on 24th July 1890, 10 years after the Milan Conference.

“The BDDA was founded at a time of intense controversy about the use of Sign Language and finger-spelling in the education of deaf children, and about the exclusion of Deaf people from national decisions that affected their lives” (BDA, n.d.).

The European Parliament proposed the recognition of sign language as the Oral method was failing deaf children.

This was also the main aim of Doug Alker, who established the Federation of Deaf People (FDP) in 1997.

“National BSL recognition marches, their biggest, bringing together nearly 10,000 marchers in Trafalgar Square in July 2000. News coverage of the marches raised the profile of BSL in the mainstream media.” (BDA, Campaigning for a better life, n.d.)

March 18th 2003

The British Government recognises BSL as a language. Success! The fight is over, right? Wrong! BSL still holds no rights in law.

Enter the Spit the Dummy campaign. They are aiming to achieve a BSL Act to ensure the rights of BSL users against discrimination.

It’s been a long journey. But with the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, planning to implement a BSL charter “to empower deaf people and remove discrimination,” who knows what the next big step in BSL history will be…

I hope you’ve found this interesting and enjoyable! Let me know your thoughts at alice@terptree.co.uk

And here is the bibliography of sources for this blog:


BDA. (n.d.). BDA Origins. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from BDA: https://www.bda.org.uk/bda-origins

BDA. (n.d.). Campaigning for a better life. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from BDA: https://www.bda.org.uk/campaigning-for-a-better-life

Berke, J. (2014, December 15). Deaf History – Milan 1880. Retrieved from About Health: http://deafness.about.com/cs/featurearticles/a/milan1880.htm

Deuchar, M. (1984). British Sign Language. New York: Routledge.

Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

UCL. (n.d.). Marriage Certificate of Thomas Tillsye. Retrieved January 2, 2016, from UCL: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/dcal/bslhistory/beginnings/marriage-certificate