A Brief History of British Sign Language (BSL)


History of British Sign Language (BSL) is marked by oppression from the hearing people. As late as the 1980s, the sign language used by the deaf communities in Britain was considered a simple collection of gestures and pantomime, while the parents of deaf children were advised not to allow their children to use signs or gesture. It was thought it would prevent them from developing lip-reading skills and speech.

Early History of BSL

Since BSL is an unwritten language, its early history is poorly understood. The very few written records about the use of sign language by the deaf communities in Britain were almost exclusively created by the hearing people which makes them questionable in regard to the language itself. But there is solid evidence that deaf people in Britain were signing as early as in the 16th century although most scholars believe that they were signing earlier.

Development of Modern BSL

It is thought that the first forms of modern BSL developed sometime in the 18th century and that its development was closely related with the growth of cities and used as a standard for international jobs in teaching. With a larger number of people being concentrated on a smaller area, deaf individuals came into contact with a larger number of other deaf people. Eventually, they formed communities that developed a more standardised form of sign language although the language itself continued to develop and change, just like spoken language.

The First School for the Deaf

Thomas Braidwood’s ‘Braidwood’s Academy for Deaf and Dumb’ that opened in 1760 is considered the first school in Britain to include sign language in education. He introduced the so-called combined system, a form of sign language that set the standards of BSL as we know it today. Braidwood’s school, however, was intended only for children of wealthier parents. But it was Braidwood’s kinsman Joseph Watson who opened the first public school for the deaf in Britain (the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Bermondsey) in the late 18th century after completing training under Braidwood.

BSL in the 20th Century

There has been a major progress in the development and establishment of BSL as a language in the 19th century but most deaf individuals learned the sign language unofficially rather than in schools. In addition, the early 20th century saw the rise of opposition to the sign language that persisted all the way to the 1970s. Deaf children were discouraged and even punished for signing and forced to learn finger spelling and lip-reading. The negative attitude towards BSL changed only when it became clear that such approach is not showing satisfactory results and rise of the awareness that BSL is much more than just a collection of gestures and pantomime. Despite that, it was not until 2003 when BSL was finally recognised as an official minority language in the United Kingdom.