The History & Background of BSL

Being a part of the deaf community makes you feel like a part of something bigger than yourself. You part of a team; using British Sign Language (BSL) creates a shared culture, community and life experience. No matter what country you reside in, Sign Language enables deaf people to freely communicate and feel part of a worldwide community they belong in.

Sign Language is a beautiful language that allows us access to such an enriched community. Allowing us to explore the deaf culture and also give greater access to information and facilities for deaf people.

But how did Sign Language come about? Who started it? And how did it become so widely used?

In this post, we will explore the history of Sign Language, particularly British Sign Language (BSL), as that’s the Sign Language we use in England. Sorry to all the other wonderful Sign Languages around the world, we haven’t forgotten about you, and we love you too! But I’m sure you’ll still find this post fascinating!

We take it for granted when we sign, speak, or do anything else that comes naturally to us. After it has been ‘programmed’ into our brains, we don’t have to engage as much; we do it and can more easily adapt to changing scenarios.

But have you ever thought to yourself how British Sign Language started?

Surely there had to have been deaf people throughout history who didn’t have the luxury of their own language to be able to communicate.

With an estimated total of 105,000 people throughout the UK using BSL as their preferred language (Most Up-To-Date Statistic), it is classed as a minority language and tracing its history and origins can be difficult, as it is an unwritten and, therefore, undocumented language.

Throughout history, like with any language, the language has adapted and evolved.  This has created a variation of signs between regions and even between generations.  As it does in spoken languages.

Written records about BSL are typically written in English and often by non-BSL users. Therefore the credibility of some of these findings cannot be verified.

However, accounts as early as the 15th century claim to suggest signs were used between deaf people.

The first description of those signs appears in the Marriage Register of St Martin’s, Leicester, 1576. This describes the vows signed by Thomas Tillsye.

BSL has a history of oppression by hearing people who have often misunderstood the language, wrongly believing that it was nothing more than a collection of ungrammatical gestures. In fact, it is a richly expressive language with a full grammar structure and a creative and adaptable vocabulary. In March 2003, it was finally recognised by the British Government as being a full, independent language.

BSL in Schools

Throughout the 19th century, BSL was used in many schools and accepted widely throughout society. Playing a vital part in the evolution and preservation of British Sign Language, as most deaf children are born to hearing adults, and some do not get the chance to develop their signing till they meet another deaf child at school.

However, come the 20th century; most schools taught deaf children to learn to speak and lipread instead. Historically there have been instances where children were punished for signing and not fully appreciated as equals. After leaving school, many BSL users would join their local deaf club, where their language and values were mutually respected.

Since the 1980s, most residential schools for deaf children have closed, and children are now educated in ‘mainstream’ schools mixed with hearing children, so their access to BSL and other deaf people is more limited.

However, language is still a central focus of many Deaf people’s lives.  For those to be a BSL user is a large part of the Deaf identity.

Sadly there isn’t a great deal of accurate accounts of British Sign Language but we did further explore the origins in a previous post entitled ‘BSL In Sherlock’.

We hope you have a great day and “sign” on!