British Sign Language alphabet is celebrated in a Google Doodle

There are said to be around 360 million people around the world who suffer from hearing loss, either from old age, exposure to excessive noise, disease or a genetic reason. The is around 5% of the world’s population, and 32 million are children.

In the UK, around 150,000 of these people communicate using British Sign Language (BSL) and approximately 87,000 use it as their first language.

The British Sign Language alphabet

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There is evidence that an early form of the British Sign Language alphabet was used from 1570 but it wasn’t until a Scottish teacher called Thomas Braidwood set up the private first deaf school in Britain in 1760 that the language became more standardised.

 A teacher from this academy, called Joseph Watson, later set up the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Bermondsey which was the first public school for the deaf in the UK.

As the name suggests, British Sign Language is used exclusively within Britain but forms part of the British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language, both of which stem from the early sign languages used in the 19th Century. There is no global, standardised language and British Sign Language users will not be able to easily speak to people who use American Sign Language as the two are very different – the different languages share only around 30% of signs. For example, in British Sign Language, the word for car is two ‘C’ hands, one on top of the other, moving in opposite directions. The way British Sign Language users distinguish between different types of vehicle – such as a van or bus – is to make the sign for the letter that corresponds with the vehicle.

For example, to sign ‘van’, you would make two ‘V’ signs with your hands and then move them away from each other. The same is done for bus, with ‘B’.

The most substantial difference is that British Sign Language uses a two-handed alphabet, while American Sign Language uses a single-handed one. British Sign has a chart showcasing the differences between the two. The left-handed graph is shown below. Click the chart to see the right-handed version. British Sign also offers a series of games that help you practice your skills including a word search. Signs replace letters in the word search and there is a guide of words to look for.

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Although British Sign Language, and any form of signing, is much slower than speaking, it works in a similar way to how shorthand works in written text. In speech, for example, someone would say” “Take the right turn, or turn right”, in sign language, this can be demonstrated with a single movement of the hand which takes the same amount of time so speed because less of an issue. Another example is “The man walks over the bridge,” which becomes “Bridge man walk.”

Additionally, not every word in English has a corresponding sign so British Sign Language uses fingerspelling to spell out names, for example, or unknown words. This is why the British Sign Language alphabet is so important. Fingerspelling signs for letters in the alphabet can then be incorporated into more general signs. Gold, for example, consists of signing the letter ‘g’ before moving your hand back and forth. 

British Sign Language wasn’t recognised as an official minority language until 2003, joining Welsh and Gaelic. And, like Welsh and Gaelic and even English, British Sign Language is evolving and has regional variations and dialects where particular signs are only used in certain towns or cities.

To celebrate Braidwood’s achievements and mark the first day back to school for many children across the UK, Google has designed a special Google Doodle showing children signing the letters in the company’s name. It has also created a video to help anyone learn the British Sign Language alphabet. The colourful video shows each letter of the British Sign Language alphabet in the top right-hand corner and the hand sign on the left. 

“As millions of children head back to school for the start of term, today we celebrate one educational institution in particular: the Braidwood Academy.

“In addition to helping lay the groundwork for deaf education in Great Britain, Braidwood’s work contributed significantly to the development of British Sign Language (BSL). He relied on teaching communication through natural gestures, which differed from the focus on speech and lip-reading elsewhere in Europe. His form of sign language ultimately set the standards for BSL as it is known today.”

Image: Google

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