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28 July 2014
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BSL today
History of BSL

The history of British Sign Language

The history of BSL is not well-documented because BSL is an unwritten language. Written records that we have of BSL in the past are usually in English, and often written by non-signers. We do know that Deaf people were signing as early as the 16th century, and we can assume that wherever Deaf people met before then, they would have signed together. Most people think, though, that BSL as we know it today began in the 18th century with the growth of towns in Britain so that large numbers of Deaf people were close enough to form their own communities. When Deaf schools were opened in the 19th century, BSL became an established language. The schools opened independently in different regions. There was considerable communication between the schools and teachers often moved between schools but there was no central training in BSL, so a wide range of regional dialects developed. Deaf people have always travelled long distances around Britain to attend Deaf events, and this has helped to create and maintain a single language in the country.

As well as having regional dialects, BSL also has differences across the generations. The signing of older Deaf people is often very different from the signing of younger Deaf people. Many signs that are recognised as 'regional variants' are used by older people, and there is some evidence that dialects are less strong among younger signers.

Although there is a method for writing BSL, most people do not write it. (Most Deaf people who want to write something will use English, which is their second language). This means that there is no written 'standard' form and there is no single dialect that is recognised as high-status, so that all regional dialects have equal status. Since 1980, BSL has been broadcast regularly on television making signs visible to the whole nation. The result of this appears to be that most signers have their own regional signs but also know a sign that is recognised across the country.

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