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

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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