BSL in its Social Context

Back Up Next

Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4
Session 5
Session 6
Session 7
Session 8
Session 9
Session 10

Session 9: Language Change

Changes in BSL

All living languages change, and BSL is no exception.  We have already seen that older signers use different signing from younger singers, and we can see this as an example of language changing.  If we are to understand BSL in its social context, we also need to understand its development through time.  Knowing about the way BSL has been used and thought about in the past can tell us a lot about the way BSL is used and thought about today.  This session will identify some of the changes that have occurred in BSL, and propose some reasons for these changes.

Problems with studying the history of BSL

Before we can consider changes in BSL we need to look at some of the very real difficulties in historical research in BSL. 

?  Pause before you read any further and think why research into the history of BSL is so difficult.

The study of the history of sign language is hampered by the lack of written records.  There never has been a way of writing BSL.  Languages with a literary tradition are much easier to do historical research on.  The history of English, for example, can be traced through surviving texts that date back for hundreds of years.  These texts reveal the history and development of English words, grammar, and even pronunciation.  Historical sign linguistics cannot use a corpus of BSL literature in the same way, simply because one does not exist. 

Although data about BSL's history is limited, it is not non-existent.  Information about the past of BSL can be found from several sources.   It is possible to read about the language from written descriptions in English, and we do have printed records containing some drawings of signs and some photographs of signs.  There is also some film of British deaf signers dating from the turn of the century.  With the widespread use of video now, we will have a better record of BSL to pass on to future generations of historians.

Another important source of information is the linguistic knowledge of deaf people themselves.  Sometimes linguists have the opportunity to see the signing of very much  older deaf people, for example one deaf woman who was interviewed on television recently was aged 100.   Information can also come from those members of the deaf community with deaf grand-parents, and even great-grand-parents.  They may have considerable knowledge of the ways that people used to sign.  A deaf person in their eighties, who had deaf grand-parents, would know of the signing used by someone who had been born as long ago as the 1840s or 1850s.    Sign linguists and members of the deaf community are now realising the importance of recording linguistic information from older deaf people.

Information written in English:

Written references to signing in the past are not uncommon, but they were usually made by hearing people with little detailed knowledge of the sign language that was used by deaf people.  Many of these references simply mention that signing occurred.  There are, however, a few known descriptions of the signs that were made.  The earliest known one of these dates to 1575.  The parish register of St. Martins, Leicester, mentions that in February 1575 a deaf man, Thomas Tillsye, was married to a woman named Ursula Russel (who was probably hearing), making his vows in sign. 

"The sayd Thomas, for the expression of his minde, instead of words of his owne accord used these signs: first he embraced her with his armes, and took her by the hande, putt a ring upon her finger and layde his hande upon her harte, and held his handes towardes heaven; and to show his continuance to dwell with her to his lyves ende he did it by closing of his eyes with his handes and digginge out of the earthe with his foote, and pulling as though he would ring a bell with divers other signs approved."

One major drawback to these descriptions is that it is not always possible to tell exactly how the sign was made.  In the Thomas Tillsye reference, the parish clerk mentions that Thomas made a sign "digginge out of the earthe with his foote".  This might have meant that he gestured digging with a spade, or simply that he dug his heel into the ground, or even his toe.  There is no way of knowing.

Drawings of signs

Illustrations solve the problem of vague English descriptions, but illustrations have always been expensive to produce in texts, and they are rare before the nineteenth century.  Many of the early illustrations that we do have are of the early manual alphabets.  The important exception is the signs drawn by Bulwer in the 1640s.  However, these signs are not given as BSL signs.  Rather they are signs that were used internationally by hearing people as part of public speaking and they were thought to be international, or maybe even universal.  We don't know, though, whether deaf people used some of these signs anyway.  After all, BSL today uses some signs that are similar to the gestures that hearing people use.

These illustrations show the form of the signs much more clearly than the written descriptions ever could.  They also show some of the facial expressions that accompanied the signs.  However, they are only vocabulary lists.  There are very few references to any of the morphological changes that might occur, or to the syntax of the language.

There are a few French dictionaries of the signs used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Paris school, providing an excellent record of the sign vocabulary used in France.  (These can be found in the RNID library in London: I strongly recommend that you visit this library if you get the chance.)  There is no known similar record in Britain because of the different histories of the two countries' education systems.  Thomas Braidwood, who ran the first non-private school for deaf children in Britain, claimed to use an entirely oral method of teaching, because he believed this gave him greater prestige.  In 1809, his grandson Joseph Watson revealed that the teaching methods used in the school had always used a combination of lip-reading, signs, fingerspelling, writing and pictures.  If the Braidwood family had been more honest earlier, there might now be a record of the signs that were undoubtedly being used in Britain at the time.

From the middle nineteenth century onwards, there are several sets of illustrations of signs used by British deaf people.  Many deaf men were trained to work as printers, and deaf people ran their own magazines and newspapers for the deaf community.  Occasionally these papers carried illustrations of signs.  A series of pictures of signs drawn by a deaf artist named Ashe was published at the end of last century. 

Another source of pictures is texts published by missioners to the deaf, which often contained a few pictures of signs.  These signs were often connected to religion, although some common signs were also shown.  It is these illustrations that allow some discussion of changes in signs over the last century.

The history of BSL is closely bound with the development of deaf education and the growth of schools for the deaf.  However, it is clear that deaf people were signing before the schools and asylums for the deaf opened.  Wherever there were enough deaf people to share the language, signing was in existence.  Although large numbers of deaf people in rural communities have always been rare, deaf people have gathered in larger towns and cities, and sign languages have been used there for centuries.  The industrial revolution caused rapid increases in towns and cities.  Deaf people who moved into new towns and cities would have found other deaf people with whom they could socialise.  Pierre Desloges in the 1780s referred to the many deaf people in Paris who would meet and discuss all manner of things in sign language, without having had the benefit of any education.  In England, Pepys described a deaf servant who signed to his master, George Downing, to tell him of the Great Fire of London in 1666. 

Changes in attitude to the language

Widespread changes in BSL occur because of the way that the language is officially accepted and used in public places.  BSL changed when schools started using it nearly 200 years ago, and again when it was banned in schools.  It has also changed as a result of TV broadcasting it. 


Language change can be internal or external. 

Internal changes arise from the internal, phonological rules of the language.  Rules simplifying the language cause it to change, but there is no influence from outside the language (from people or society). 

External changes are far more major and arise because of outside influences of people or society.  For example the language users might borrow new signs from other languages because of language contact, or may need to make new signs because of new inventions or new concepts.  At a very basic level, a language may change because the speakers have not had enough contact with adult speakers of their language.  This last point can lead to huge changes in all languages, whether spoken or signed.

Changes in a language may be at a phonological, lexical or syntactic level, but most of the information that we have about BSL concerns changes in sign vocabulary over time. 

Although we know very little about the syntax of BSL in the past, the little evidence that we have suggests that it has always been different from the syntax of English, just as it is today.

Internal Changes

Internal changes in BSL follow several different phonological patterns.  In all cases, the signs are becoming easier to articulate in some way.

a) handshape changes

When signs with two hands have two different handshapes, the sign changes so that the two hands have the same handshape.  For example, the sign BETTER used to be made with hands of two different handshapes (you might still see this in use sometimes).  The active hand was a fist with an extended thumb , and the passive hand was a fist with an extended forefinger.

Another example is in the sign MINICOM.  It is now not uncommon to see both hands with the "TELEPHONE" handshape.   This is not so in the citation form of the sign, but occurs commonly in conversational use.  There is also a change in movement, as may be seen in the next point.

b) movement changes

If a sign has two movements, it may drop to one.  For example an old sign CENTRE used to have two movements: firstly, the active hand would circle above the upturned passive palm, and then it would move down to contact the centre of the palm.  The initial circling movement has now been dropped, and the modern sign now simply has a contact of the active hand against the passive palm. 

This loss of movement is also seen in compounds.  Think about MINICOM again.  The citation form of the sign has the active hand holding still, and the passive hand moving left and right, while the fingers wiggle.  In other words, there is both an external and an internal movement of the hand.  In conversation, however, both hands move left and right, alternately, and the internal wiggling of the fingers on the passive hand is lost.

c) location changes

If there are two locations, it may drop to one.  An old form of the sign GIVE shows the hand first touching the chest, and then moving from neutral space near the signer's body in the direction of the recipient.  

This reduction in specific locations is also seen in compounds.  For example, the sign BELIEVE is historically a compound of THINK and TRUE.  However the forehead location of THINK has now been lost and the sign BELIEVE begins in neutral space.   The same is true of PROMISE, which is formed from SAY and TRUE.  Here, the initial location of SAY has been reduced to neutral space around the upper chest.

If there are two separate signs in the compound sign, one can be dropped altogether.  For example, ENVY used to have two parts, but the second part (bringing the active hand up the chest) has now been dropped, and only the first part (the curved forefinger against the mouth) has been kept.

The signs EXPECT and CHECK have also lost a part, although in these signs, it is the first morpheme that has been lost.  In EXPECT, the components were THINK and MAYBE, while in CHECK, the components were SEE and MAYBE.  In both cases the initial SEE has been deleted.  The difference now in primarily in location of the hand that originally meant MAYBE.

Signs also tend to move away from the upper arm and down towards the hand.  For example, TROUBLE used to be signed on the fore-arm and now it is signed on the back of the hand.

d) changes in the number of hands

If there are two hands, it may drop to one.  There is a general tendency for signs to become one-handed.  Old signs such as AWAKE, DREAM, FISH and FARM were all made with two hands, but now they are all commonly made as one-handed signs.  We also see this reduction in casual signing.

e) changes to unmarked handshapes

Handshapes may alter to become one of the "unmarked" handshapes of a sign language.  These are handshapes that are most common, most easy to distinguish from other handshapes, and are usually learned first by children acquiring the language.  These changes are particularly seen when an initialised sign is used but the letter handshape is marked (that is, more complicated), so it is changed to an unmarked handshape that is not linked to the manual alphabet.  This is seen where the one-handed manual alphabet is used, but also in BSL.   For example, the letter handshape for -m- is very marked (there are very few signs in BSL that use it, except maybe BOY-SCOUT) and yet there are lots of initialised signs that use the -m- handshape.  However, if you look carefully, you will see that the active hand is a 'B' hand, not the normal "official" -m- handshape.  The B hand is unmarked.

f)  change in hand orientation

It is also a trend for signs made on the back of a passive hand to be made on the palm of the passive hand.  THEATRE and SET-UP used to be made on the back of the hand, but are now often made on the palm.

All these changes are internal changes, brought about by the rules of BSL phonology, making the signs easier to articulate or to understand.  External changes, however, are much more noticeable, and more fundamental.

External Changes

We have to ask why languages change.  It's not enough to note that they do change.  We have to come up with some reasons.

For example, most people will probably recognise one list here as being "old-fashioned English words", and the other list as being ones more in use now.  The question is why the change occurred.  Some people might be surprised to learn what this reason is.



baker's shop










season-ticket holder

cone (ice-cream)



sweet course

long-distance (telephone)








scrambled eggs

buttered eggs

soft drinks






weather man

clerk of the weather


Changes in technology

One cause of lexical changes in BSL is change in technology.  We saw, when we looked at differences between older and younger signers that the appearance and way handling of equipment changes as the technology changes, and iconic signs may change to reflect this.

When computers first entered everyday conversation, the sign reflected the spinning spools of the magnetic tapes then used.  Now that computers have become common in most office environments, in the form of word-processors or data-processing machines, the sign has changed to focus upon the keyboard.

New Inventions and new concepts

New signs have to be introduced because of  new inventions or new ideas.

Recent new concepts include the fax machine, communications satellites, the national lottery, television soap operas, cochlear implants and more abstract ideas new to users of BSL, such as community, discrimination and integration.  In all cases, the language has had to change because the outside world has changed: society has caused the language to change because society has changed. 

Old signs also die out.  For example, signs such as PAWN-BROKER and ALMS are no longer in widespread use, although they are given in a very basic list of signs from 100 years ago.


?   What signs can you think of that must have come into BSL during your lifetime because the idea did not exist before then?

Changes in attitude to the language

Widespread changes in BSL occur because of the way that the language is officially accepted and used in public places.  BSL changed when schools started using it, and again when it was banned in schools.  It has changed as a result of TV broadcasting it. 

One theory of language change holds that children make the language change because they don't copy their parents properly when they learn languages.  This theory is called the Wave Theory, and proposes that language changes a little bit with each generation and then remains stable until the next generation changes it again. 

There is possibly some of this occurring in BSL, because of the lack of continuity between generations of signers.  Many deaf children have, in recent generations, learnt their sign language from other children (often the children of deaf parents) rather than from adult language models.  Deaf children are often less fluent in BSL than adults, so the language changes. 

? Pause now to recap, and make sure that you understand the difference between Internal language change and External language change.

The history of the British manual alphabet

We have talked about the history of BSL, but now we need to look at  the history of the manual alphabet.  Today the manual alphabet is an important, if peripheral, feature of British sign language, and yet it was introduced solely for the purpose of teaching deaf people English.  Records show that manual alphabets were used by hearing people long before they were introduced to deaf people.  In fact, it is probably safe to assume that manual alphabets are almost as ancient as sign languages.

We know that there have been two different major types of manual alphabet used in Britain.  The ancestor of the modern system is dated to 1698, with the publication of "Digiti Lingua", and by 1720 the modern system was reasonably well established.  Before 1698, however, a different manual alphabet, "arthrology", was in use.  The "arthro" bit means "joints" (like arthritis), and we call these alphabets arthrological because letters of the alphabet were put on different joints of the fingers and palm of the left hand.  The index finger of the right hand pointed to the letters in succession to spell out words.   Although this alphabet system was used by deaf people, its main use was by hearing people who needed to communicate secretly.

           Have a look at Dalgarno's manual alphabet here.

The best-known arthrological system in Britain is probably in Dalgarno's 1680 publication "Didascalocophus".  Dalgarno is famous for being the first to publish a picture of the first manual alphabet for deaf people that we know of (it is also the last because the radical changes to the manual alphabet occurred soon afterwards), but the arthrological system had been in use in the British Isles for centuries before this.



John Bulwer has been credited with making the earliest mention of fingerspelling in Britain, in his publication "Chirologia" in 1644.  These manual alphabets, however, were not like that printed by Dalgarno, and were of a very different system.

Bulwer's manual alphabets arranged various international gestures used in oratory (like "public speaking") so that they could be used to represent letters of the alphabet.  Bulwer also made his alphabets so people could communicate in secret.   For Bulwer, however, the emphasis was on the use of gestures as a complement to speech rather than an alternative.

 The manual alphabet that Bulwer expected to be used by deaf people is mentioned in "Philocophus, or the Deafe and Dumbe man's friende", which Bulwer wrote in 1648.  Unfortunately, it is not illustrated, nor even described.  In "Philocophus", Bulwer mentioned a deafened man, Master Babington of Burntwood, who communicated with his wife using "arthrologie", by pointing to areas of the hand and the finger joints.  Although Bulwer did not give any examples of this arthrology, it would be reasonable to assume that the system was similar to the one described by Dalgarno over 30 years later.

However, it is possible to take this same "arthrological" manual alphabet back even further, to John Wilkins' "Mercury, the Swift and Silent Messenger" (1641).  The book is a work on cryptography, and fingerspelling was referred to as one method of "secret discoursing, by signes and gestures".   Wilkins said:

"Hence it is easie to conceive, how the letters, as well as the numbers, may be thus applyed to the severall parts of the hand, so that a man might with divers touches, make up any sense, that hee hath occasion to discover unto a confederate.

"This may be performed.... by any... way of compact that may bee agreed upon.  As for example.   Let the tops of the fingers signifie the five vowels; the middle parts, the first five consonants; the bottomes of them, the five next consonants; the spaces betwixt the fingers the foure next.  One finger laid on the side of the hand may signifie T.  Two fingers V the consonant; Three W.  The little finger crossed X.  The wrist Y.  The middle of the hand Z." (1641:116-117)

In this passage, Wilkins described the five vowels as exactly the same as the vowels in the modern British manual alphabet.  This means we can trace the modern British manual vowels back to at least 1641.   Although Wilkins did not provide an illustration of the manual alphabet, a possible reconstruction can be made.

     Have a look at Wilkins' manual alphabet here.



Wilkins referred to deaf people using signs and gestures, including arthrology.   He mentioned that arthrology was of "especial note for [its] use and antiquity".  It is clear that Wilkins knew that the manual alphabet he described was used among deaf people, as well as by hearing people.  There was no suggestion that he invented this manual alphabet.  In fact, evidence suggests that Wilkins' manual alphabet was descended from one that can be traced back to the previous millennium.

Wilkins also mentioned Bede's description of some of the systems of fingerspelling used by the Romans and Ancient Greeks.  These systems were closely linked to the counting systems of these two cultures.  If the Romans wanted to communicate secretly, they held up the number of fingers that was the number of a letter in the alphabet.  So, for example, if you wanted to warn someone that a person was "bad", you would hold up 2, 1, 4, because b=2, a=1 and d=4.

What Wilkins did not mention, though, was that a manual alphabet, very similar to his (and most unlike the unsophisticated systems the Romans and Greeks had) has been in existence in Britain and Ireland, since as early as the sixth century BC.

An alphabet, called Ogham, was used at this time by Celtic people called the Goidels, and was still being used at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.  It consisted of twenty letters and was clearly used by Druids, especially in Ireland, but also in Britain.  The aim behind using this alphabet manually was secrecy (the Druids had a lot of secrets....).  The written letters in this alphabet are grouped into four sets, each of five characters.  Robert Graves took this as evidence that the written alphabet was actually designed this way because it was easy to use manually.  The letters in each set are written using a number of nicks made against a base line.  Graves believed that the number of nicks shows which finger is used, and the angle and position of the nick relative to the base line shows the position of the letter on the finger.  The forefinger of the right hand would have pointed out the letters, just as in the system described by Wilkins.

     Have a look at the Ogham manual alphabet.  Compare it to Wilkins’.



In another method described by Graves, "leg Ogham" (or Cos-ogham), the shin was used as the base line, and the fingers of the right hand were made to represent the nicks, according to the number and angle of fingers laid across the shin.  There is an echo of this in the system described by Wilkins.  The later alphabet had more letters than the Ogham alphabet (26, instead of 20) and they could not all be placed conveniently on the hand.  Wilkins suggested laying different numbers of fingers across the side of the hand for some letters, just as they were laid across the shin in Ogham.

The letters are arranged very differently in the two arthrological systems described by Graves and Wilkins, but the later system must have developed out of this earlier one.  We know that the Ogham manual alphabet was being used in Celtic monasteries in the early centuries of the Christian era, so the educated people of the time would have been aware of it.

This arthrological system was definitely used in the early education of deaf people in the mid-seventeenth century.  The two first educators of the deaf, John Wallis and William Holder both refer to fingerspelling, and it is most likely that they both used this arthrological system.

A method of representing letters by using the whole body rather than just the hands coexisted with arthrology.  La Fin's "Sermo Mirabilis" (1692) was an alphabet that used body parts whose initial letters could be used to spell out words, (eg Brow, Cheek, Deaf Ear, Forehead etc).  Aware that this would only hold for English, La Fin also produced a parallel alphabet which could be used in Latin.  He claimed that the same method could be used for any language such as French or Dutch, although he did not make any suggestions for these.  Although body parts were used to represent consonants, the vowels were still placed on the ends on the fingers.  Two suggestions were given for "i", however.  The middle finger of the passive hand could be substituted by pointing to the eye, as a pun on the sound of the letter.

     Have a look at La Fin's manual alphabet.



The use of these "body alphabets" was never widespread, but arthrology remained popular even when alphabets using distinctive handshapes were in common use.   In 1883, Alexander Graham Bell tried to re-introduce a modification of Dalgarno's manual alphabet. This version was entirely upon the surface of one hand, but it read systematically, from left to right, down the hand, making no exception for the vowels (unlike all the early English manual alphabets which placed the vowels on the tips of the fingers). 

     Have a look at Bell's manual alphabet.  Compare it to Dalgarno’s and Wilkins’.

The Fore-Runner Of The Modern British Manual Alphabet

 "Digiti Lingua", published anonymously in 1698, presented the first manual alphabets with most letters represented by distinctive hand arrangements.  The vowels, however, remained at the tips of the fingers as in previous alphabets.  The roots of the modern British two-handed alphabet clearly lie in this publication.  The author himself was unable to speak and recommended the use of the manual alphabet for anyone incapable of speech, for whatever reason.  He suggested that it might be used on occasions when silence and secrecy were needed, or purely for entertainment.  He made no explicit reference to the deaf.

     Have at a look at the two Digiti Lingua manual alphabets.



It is probably significant that the author of Digiti Lingua used the alphabet himself for everyday communication and so it was far more practical than La Fin's or even the old arthrologies which are hard to read from any distance or at much speed.  

The author's main concern was for secrecy.  This isn't really surprising because England in the 17th century was full of spies and people needed to keep secrets.  In the name of secrecy, the author offered two sets of 26 manual letter hand-arrangements arranged into alphabets, with the recommendation that the reader should allocate different letters to the different handshapes, or even make up new ones. 

Although these alphabets were a radical departure from the previous arthrological styles, one purpose seemed unchanged.  It is clear that the alphabet was still not considered something which should be standardised to enable strangers to communicate. 

Digiti Lingua may be seen as a bridge between the old manual alphabets and the new.  Nine of its letters can be traced to earlier versions, and many of its handshapes can be seen in the modern version.  Within the two sets of 26 handshapes provided by Digiti Lingua there are handshapes which now represent 17 letters in the British manual alphabet.

Although the author of Digiti Lingua did introduce several new iconic forms, a very visual manual alphabet would have given away the secrets, so it is hardly surprising that the letters were disguised.  Seventeenth century cryptographers often used the technique of giving new meanings to the different letters of the alphabet, so it should not be surprising that Digiti Lingua did the same.  Despite this, the representations of "m", "n", and "z " were so iconic that they were given in both versions.

The two forms of -q- in Digiti Lingua have both been used extensively since that time, one predominantly in Scotland and the other in England and Wales.  Today only the more iconic form is used in fingerspelling although the old Scottish form can clearly be seen in initialised signs such as QUARTER, QUIET and QUESTION.  However, this disappearance of the Scottish -q- as part of fingerspelling is only recent.  Clark Denmark remembers seeing it being used during fingerspelling, when he was a child in Glasgow.



The "Modern" British Manual Alphabet

The modern British manual alphabet was printed for the first time in a plate published in 1720.  The letters are very similar to those used today.

Defoe's Manual Alphabet

In 1720 Daniel Defoe published "The Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell", The 1720 edition contains the plate that is very similar to the modern alphabet (although -j- is missing) with only four other letters different from those used today.  The 1732 edition of the same book contains a different, but basically similar, illustration of the manual alphabet.  In this later version, a -j- has been added and the -v- has changed to become more like the one that is used today.

     Look at Defoe's 1720 and 1732 manual alphabets.  Are they very different from today’s?

Thus, somewhere between 1698 and 1720, our manual alphabet became fixed in roughly the form we know it.  It is unlikely that Defoe was the author of this manual alphabet,  and it is more likely that he learned of it from Duncan Campbell, or perhaps Wallis or maybe it was already in general use at the time. 

Up until this time in England, manual alphabets were not considered to be universal systems. Throughout the seventeenth century, the aim of manual alphabets was to permit people (deaf or not) to communicate with their immediate friends, co-conspirators or family, and for communication between tutors and their deaf pupils.  In this last situation, if speech was the aim of the education, then a manual alphabet may have only been seen as a makeshift stop-gap.  For this reason, perhaps, authors describing these alphabets often left the option open for the readers to devise manual alphabets of their own.   It was only with the growth of more widespread education for deaf people and the development of a British deaf community that it became necessary for one standard form of the manual alphabet to be used.

Changes in the British Manual Alphabet since 1732

After 1732, the citation forms of letters given in charts of the British manual alphabets remain basically the same, although some letters do vary more than others.  

A collection of charts from 1698 to the present day shows some of the developments.  We will look at them in the practical session, and think about the changes we can see.

It is also important to be aware that the charts may not accurately represent the handshapes occurring in fingerspelling of deaf people at the time.  The charts published today show only one form for letters which, in practice, may be formed in a variety of ways.  The BSL/English Dictionary makes this point very clear when it gives several forms for several manual letters.  There are also regional, age and idiosyncratic differences to take into account.  Bearing these caveats in mind, however, the drawings of manual alphabets preserved since the early 18th century give us a guideline as to what was taught at the time, even if the teaching was not put into conversational practice.

Two-handed manual alphabets from around the world

Although the one-handed manual alphabets have spread to become dominant (mainly because of the combined influence of the Americans and the Roman Catholic church - both of whom use the one-handed system) two-handed manual alphabets are found in other parts of the world. 

In some cases they derive from, or are the same as, the British manual alphabet, and in other instances they have very different manual letters and do not share a common history.  There are two-handed alphabets in former British colonies, like India, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda and South Africa.  None of this should be very surprising.  In some of these countries there is a one-handed alphabet too.  These have usually either come from Catholic schools or American "aided" teachers.  In the Indian system, the vowels are different, and more iconic.  We will see that iconic vowels are very common in other alphabets apart from the British one.

There are also two-handed alphabets in the former Yugoslavia, Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Norway, Germany and the USA.

The Norwegian manual alphabet today is one-handed.  However, many older deaf Norwegians know another, two-handed, manual alphabet.  This is very similar to the British system, although, again, the vowels provide more iconic representations of the written letters. 

VIDEO Have a look at the video clip of the Norwegian manual alphabet.


 German Sign Language has not had an official manual alphabet until recently, and its system is now one-handed.   A hearing German signer (a teacher in a deaf school) told me that there was no manual alphabet in GSL.  However, there is a two-handed manual alphabet that is known by many hearing German school children as well as German deaf.  There is also a similar two-handed alphabet in part of the Czech Republic.

It may seem odd that there is a two-handed American manual alphabet, when the American one-handed system is so dominant in the world, but most deaf people over 40 know it there.  It seems only the hearing educators who don't know it!  In fact many Americans would like to bring the two-handed one back because it is less strain on the eyes, and hands.  Again, it is similar to the British one, except for the vowels.

It makes most sense to suggest that the two-handed manual alphabet has spread widely because it is easy to relate to letter shapes, and easy to use, but that the vowels are changed in other countries because they are not iconic.  Britain has held on to them, perhaps because the schools used the alphabet.   In other countries where the two-handed alphabet did not have the approval of the authorities, the "difficult" vowels have been changed to something easier.

Readings for Session 9

Back to BSL Social Context Home
This page was last modified November 07, 2000