British Sign Language Fact Sheet

by Joe Lever


  • 1576: First recorded use of a sign language in England (in which marriage vows were signed by Thomas Tillsye) with accounts of deaf people using signs going back even further to the 15th century
  • 1720: Daniel Defoe publishes The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell, Deaf and Dumb and includes a manual alphabet chart which closely resembles modern BSL fingerspelling 
  • 1792: Establishment of the London Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Poor – the first public Deaf school in Britain
    • Teaching of Deaf children remained focused on speaking/writing and lip-reading, rather than encouraging signing, until the early 20th century – during this time, sign language was passed down through ‘covert’ communication between Deaf people outside of schools
  • 1971: British Deaf and Dumb Association rebrands as British Deaf Association (BDA)
  • 1975: First coinage of British Sign Language as the term for language used by Deaf speakers 
  • 1995: Disability Discrimination Act is passed 
  • 2003: BSL recognised as an official minority language by the British Government

Source: ‘History of British Sign Language’ exhibit 


  • Sign languages are not universal but instead unique to individual communities / nations
    • There are regional variations within BSL just as with spoken English
  • Sign languages are not direct manual versions of the spoken language – they require their own grammatical systems to most efficiently utilise hand signs
    • Sign Supported English (SSE) is an alternate form of BSL which uses the same signs but in the same order as spoken English – often used with children learning BSL and spoken English grammar simultaneously 
  • BSL is used by over 150,000 people in the UK – of which around 85,000 are Deaf and rely solely on BSL to communicate with others
    • For every Deaf person using BSL, there are on average 1.4 hearing people using BSL
  • BSL is more than just hand gestures – it requires handshapes, facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning and distinguish between similar signs (a bit like homonyms and homophones in written English)
    • Many Deaf BSL users will also rely on lip-reading when communicating with hearing people – this has obviously been badly impacted during the pandemic
  • Sign Language Week 2022 will be celebrated from March 13th-19th 

Source: ‘What is BSL?’ 

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Student Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, SCR, and Staff. Current Executive Editors: Monim Wains and Siddiq Islam

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