BSL In Sherlock

2016 started off with a very special occasion for the Deaf community. BSL made its way into BBC’s Sherlock New Year’s Day special ‘Sherlock: The Abominable Bride’. (Now, we at terptree believe it should be the norm, but at least it’s a start!)

Over 8.4 million people tuned in to watch Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and profoundly Deaf actor Tim Barlow use British Sign Language (BSL).  In July 2008, Tim Barlow had a cochlear implant that allowed him to hear for the 1st time in over 50 years.

People were sceptical about whether the BSL was ‘legitimate’, but anyone in the Deaf community knows it was 100% real British Sign Language. It’s quite sad actually that people have to question whether it’s real when there should be enough exposure that ensures BSL is treated with respect and acknowledged by many as the fabulous language it is.

Also, with the Sherlock series being set in the present day and seamlessly jumping back to Victorian times (with the original novels being set between 1880 – 1914), people were asking themselves, ‘was sign language around then?’


BSL Origins

British Sign Language (BSL) is a visual language, but its early history is poorly understood and documented. However, records of Sign Language (not necessarily BSL) exist within Deaf communities as far back as 1570. As all languages do, British Sign Language has evolved from these possible origins through invention, modification, importation and the need to keep up with modern society.

An Edinburgh teacher by the name of Thomas Braidwood founded ‘Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb’ (we know that we do not use this terminology, but at the time, this was commonplace) in 1760; it is recognised as the 1st school for deaf children in Britain. An early form of what we know today as British Sign Language was used here.

Another teacher of the deaf, trained by Thomas Braidwood, named Joseph Warson, left the school in 1792 to become the headmaster of the 1st public school for the deaf in Britain ‘London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb’ in Bermondsey.

Until the 1940s, sign language skills were passed on unofficially between deaf people often living in residential institutions. The signing was actively discouraged in schools by punishment, and the emphasis in education was on deaf children learning to lip read and finger spell. From the 1970s onwards, there was an increasing tolerance and instruction of BSL in schools.

An example of these teachings and ideologies can be seen in this historical drama, made by the extremely talented people over at BSL Zone, giving us an insight into what it was like to be deaf back then


BSL as a Language

BSL users campaigned to have BSL recognised on a similar level to Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh, and it was finally recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government on 18th March 2003, but it has no legal protection. There is, however, legislation requiring the provision of interpreters, such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Equality Act 2010.

Although the UK and the USA share English as their predominant oral language, British Sign Language is quite distinct from its counterpart American Sign Language (ASL). Only 31% of the signs are identical, and only 44% have the same linguistic derivation. Irish Sign Language (ISL) is also visibly distinct from BSL.  It is actually more closely related to French Sign Language (LSF) and ASL.

Sri Lanka’s Sign Language is also similar to BSL despite their oral language not being English. Auslan (Australian Sign Language) is also very closely related due to the history of colonisation. Identifying a clear distinction between Spoken Languages and Sign Languages.


Back To Sherlock


Now that we have recognised that the BSL in Sherlock is legitimate, how did it come around?

Through connections in the Deaf community; a BSL tutor, Jill, at Hearing Dogs for Deaf people; received an e-mail from Tim Barlow saying how he’d gained a small role as a Deaf person; with 6 lines of BSL in Sherlock.  He was wondering if she could teach him the necessary signs.


Let the Teaching Begin

Just before Christmas, Jill received a follow-up email from the production assistant Sherlock. A date and time were arranged for Jill to meet at Benedict Cumberbatch’s house for her to teach him his BSL lines. Then it was time to meet the man himself and begin the teaching.

“Benedict was suffering from a bad cold, but he sat down and got straight on with it. He was really interested in BSL; and asked intelligent questions about how signs are created; and about people signing the wrong thing by mistake”. A few weeks later, it was Martin Freeman’s turn.

“It was a very frosty morning, and his children were running in and out with pieces of ice and frosted leaves to show him. It was so normal and homely. Martin picked up BSL remarkably quickly, unlike his character Dr Watson”.

Jill discussed her experiences on set: “The BSL scene is a very short one, but it took five hours to film. I thought they’d set up cameras at different angles, but they filmed it over and over again. They filmed from different points to get close-ups of the actors’ faces and hands. It was an education in itself watching the actors perform the same scene repeatedly, trying to get everything the same each time.”

“It was very interesting working with actors. Facial expressions are very important in BSL as they replace tones of voice. Most people loathe role-play in BSL classes, but actors aren’t afraid of expressions and don’t feel shy. These people got straight on with it; it’s their day job”.

You can see the hilarious BSL clips here (Part 2 follows after):

The terptree team hope you have enjoyed this post spotlighting BSL in Sherlock; and a brief look at the language and its origins. We look forward to seeing you again for another post real soon! 🙂