BSL word ordering

English version

One of the things that people struggle to understand when learning BSL is how the word ordering differs from English. For example, consider the sentence ‘Why was the black cat climbing the tree in your garden yesterday?’. This would be translated to ‘yesterday your garden tree black cat climb why?’. In BSL, words are normally ordered as follows:

  1. Timeline (yesterday)
  2. Location (your garden)
  3. Object (tree)
  4. Subject (black cat)
  5. Verb (climb)
  6. Question (why)

This is a simple example but can be used to help translate any English to BSL. Note that things like ‘and’, ‘because’ and ‘he said’ split a sentence into multiple parts and should be treated individually.

BSL version (I didn’t wimp out this time!)

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34 thoughts on “BSL word ordering

  1. That’s really interesting. I knew the word order was different, but I didn’t realise there was a consistency to it. It made me wonder if that’s part of the reason so many programmers seem to take to it. Seeing your ordering sequence looked like how I’d approach a data problem in code or a database.

    • Hello, as a linguistics graduate I have found BSL extremely interesting and am currently attempting to learn it. As such I can offer this very basic description of what is occurring based on what I know. (Please note these are basic assumptions based on a very inadequate knowledge of BSL).

      Sign language (like other languages) is a formalised and structured form of communication that follows a strict set of syntactic rules (grammar) that allow meaning to be conveyed.

      Any system of communication would of course have to be formalised otherwise individuals would not be able to fully comprehend each other. What is interesting, however, is that present-tense in BSL is typically like the English present-tense word order ie; SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) – I (subject) am walking (Verb) down the road (object). However, where tense, in English, is placed on the verb, ie; to walk, walk(ing), walk(ed), tense in BSL does not seem to be conveyed within the verb. Instead, as stated in the original article, a timeline phrase (or framing device) is used at the beginning of a sentence in order to signify its tense. Tense, therefore, is not required on the verb which follows this framing device as tense is already established. Interestingly, in many dialects of English this feature is prevalent too. (Imagine Jamaican English “yesterday me walk down the road” – note that there is no tense on the verb).

      So, if in BSL you wish to convey the past tense you would initially ‘place’ your situation within whatever time-frame you wish, ie; “last week” then continue as if you were composing a present tense sentence. Therefore, “Last week I went to my brother’s wedding” would directly translate in BSL as “last week i go to my brother’s wedding” . In this example the only difference is the verb “to go” which has changed from past tense, “i went”, in spoken english, to present tense, “i go”, in BSL. As mentioned above, the tense of the verb in the sentence is indicated by the initial framing device. This means that a suffix on the verb, such as ‘ed’ or ‘ing’, is not necessary.

      Example:
      1: English “yesterday I walked down the road”
      BSL “yesterday I walk down the road”

      Here we can see that tense in the ‘English’ example is conveyed with the ‘ed’ suffix at the end of ‘walk’, signifying the past tense. However, this suffix is forced upon the verb ‘walk’ by the initial tense indicator ‘yesterday’. This is obvious because the sentence “yesterday I walk down the road” does not make sense (is not grammatical) in English. Interestingly however, if someone were to say it to you, you would make sense of it. So in BSL is appears as though all that really happens when indicating tense is that the suffixes you would typically use to indicate tense, which would change the morphology/phonology of a verb, are ignored as they are not actually necessary as all meaning, in terms of tense, is indicated by the initial framing device/verb modifier.

      With regard the the Wh-word’s (what, where, who, which) position in a sentence: Wh-words are typically associated with changing declarative or imperative sentences into interrogative sentences (this means they change statements or assertions into questions) ie; declarative; “the cat climbed the tree”, interrogative; “why did the cat climb the tree”.

      I am led to believe that in BSL the position of these Wh-words can in fact be placed at the beginning or the end of a sentence, or phrase. This is because Wh-words do not relate to tense and instead to “sentence type” ie; declarative, imperative, interrogative, which places them outside of any sisterhood-relationship with other phrases in BSL. (Their position is irrelevant because once signed the listener understands the sentence is a question).

      On top of all of this, it appears that in BSL word order within a past-tense sentence is not important. So, in actual fact, a past tense BSL sentence should take this form:

      * indicates a seperate constituent in the sentence.
      * indicates the Wh-question phrase which is to be used only once in the sentence but can be used in any of the three allotted spaces. Therefore, i believe any of the options below are grammatically correct sentences in BSL. (I would love to know to what extent this is correct as I have only been learning BSL for 4 days and know very little but have spoken at length with BSL speakers who say that these types if sentences would be acceptable).

      1:
      2:
      3:

      Also, does anyone have any information on any regional dialects/variations of BSL or slang and colloquial terms in BSL language? Growth and development, especially within a niche language such as sign language, is extraordinarily interesting.

      Additionally, has anyone read up on the creation of Nicurauan sign language? It is extraordinary!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjtioIFuNf8

      • On top of all of this, it appears that in BSL word order within a past-tense sentence is not important. So, in actual fact, a past tense BSL sentence should take this form:

        *[Question]* *Framing Device* *[Question]* *(Subject, Object, Verb, Location, Place (in any order you wish))* *[Question]*

        Note: *xxxx* indicates a seperate constituent in the sentence.
        Note: *[Question]* indicates the Wh-question phrase which is to be used only once in the sentence but can be used in any of the three allotted spaces. Therefore, i believe any of the options below are grammatically correct sentences in BSL. (I would love to know to what extent this is correct as I have only been learning BSL for 4 days and know very little but have spoken at length with BSL speakers who say that these types if sentences would be acceptable).

        1: *[why]* *yesterday* *[why]* *(your garden tree black cat climb)* *[why]*
        2: *[why]* *yesterday* *[why]* *(climb tree your garden black cat)* *[why]*
        3: *[why]* *yesterday* *[why]* *(black cat your garden tree climb)* *[why]*

        Also, does anyone have any information on any regional dialects/variations of BSL or slang and colloquial terms in BSL language? Growth and development, especially within a niche language such as sign language, is extraordinarily interesting.

        Additionally, has anyone read up on the creation of Nicurauan sign language? It is extraordinary!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjtioIFuNf8

      • Fascinating stuff johnny, thanks for that. Learning BSL did give me an appreciation of linguistics in general.

  2. Pingback: Gareth Jones » Multi-channel signs in BSL

  3. that’s a fascinating thought, Darren! the fact that when i code, i tend to think more in BSL than English… i had not realised this until i read your comment, thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Hi Garethhow interesting & great what you are doing. Very informative.Please advise me of the following: I have gone through my file for me to achieve Level 3 Certificate in BSL (BSL3) units BSL 301 +BSL units 302 receptive and productive.Theme 1-bsl knowledge and skills(mandatory) Can use one deaf /hearing person twice(deaf lev 3) (hearing lev 4) EACH CLIP HAS TO BE 6-8 MINS LONG Theme 2-Society(mandatory)-Tutor chooses the subject ,productive by myself (video)- (General)- For portfolio ,shall i print PowerPoint off and research more off internet. Anymore ideas or tips? One will be a broadcast to test receptive and we have to tick the answer.( Deaf) Then the tutor gave us a list where we choose, I chose: music (general) -video-productive/receptive 50/50got DVD of Frankie wilde deaf dj.Shall i print off internet info about him and Beethoven, As well as research music school for deaf. any more ideas or tips? Theme 3-Educational- my chosen subjects:Stages of education :Post 16/lifelong learning- (general)productive/receptive 50/50Teaching and learning :The role of the teacher-(General)productive/receptive 50/50. Education provision for deaf learners: Options for deaf children at each phase of education-nursery/pre-school, primary, secondary, 6th form options, further and higher education.(Deaf) Evidence of Frozen and productive lexicons including classifier predicates What!!!!! please explain I kinda no but what clarification.loans from English e.g. finger spelling, loan translation inc idioms and compounds -What!!!!! please explainI kinda no but what clarification choice of vocabulary express numerical data e.g. dates,times,calender,money weight, ,measures, size and enumeration- What!!!!!!!please explainI kinda no but what clarification Sign language sentence structure imperative and interrogative form-What!!!!!! please explain.I kinda no but what clarificationClarity of articulation, manual versus non-manual grammatical markers, informal and formal registersI kinda no but what clarification The best sign language videos, CD-Roms and deaf TV programs. Oviously i have found a lot. what websites do you generally use??For my portfolio Evidence shall i add the following; Rnid photo copy of me in the one in seven magazine raising money for them and any letters i received off themjohn smith show ticketphoto of hove park school children and me a reference from Deaf teacher about me as her teaching assistant . Do you think i should put in the handouts i give the kids?letter from ndcs for money i raisedPhoto or info off internet of videos i may have with regards to DVDs i may have on deaf?list of websites?Any more suggestions? Obviously we have to keep a log of date where when we met deaf people eg deaf club.Sorry i know its long winded.I so want this. Am so passionate about it and have lost so much just to get where i am. Hope you don't mind me e-mailing. Want to ensure I have got it right. LUV NETTIE

  6. Hi Nettie, thanks for your message. Unfortunately I'm not a tutor and am certainly no expert having only just submitted my level 3 portfolio myself. My suggestion would be to take all these questions to your tutor and get him/her to answer each one. Try writing them down if you're struggling to articulate using sign language – I'm sure you'll find common ground between the two of you. Your tutor should know the answers and will be most familiar with the requirements from the exam board – that's their job!Good luck!

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  8. I am enjojing watching the BSL, but struggle with some signs, I am learning year 1, would it be possible to have the words up on the screen too or words sounding the sign. I struggle mostly with the multichannel signs. Thank-you.

  9. I am learning BSL 1, and am enjoying it very much but struggle with the multichannel signs, would it be possible to hear the worde as you sign to help me understand ? Thank-you

  10. Hi Wendy. The text in the post should give you a good summary of the video content. It's very difficult to speak and sign at the same time (as word order is entirely different) so that's why there is no speech for you to listen to. Good luck with your level 1.

  11. Hi I am currently studying Level 1 & have have been set some homework of translating English grammarsentences to BSL grammar do you know of a site that can help myself in doing this? My email is jenny.hopley@hotmail.co.uk thanks.

    • Hi Jenny. I’m afraid I don’t know of a site that does that. Hopefully the rules in my post will help but your teacher will be the best person to ask if you’re not sure!

  12. This is very interesting, thanks for sharing. I linked to it through Wikipedia.

    What circumstances would the above example not be applicable for?
    For instance, I saw that the way to ask “what’s your name” comes out as “name what you”. Is there a reason for this?

    • I’m no expert, this was just something I was taught by a BSL teacher. I think the above are general guidelines and it probably comes down to personal preference and convention among peers. For example, I was taught “name you what?” for “what’s your name?” but I’ve seen many alternatives.

  13. Sign-language is a very difficult language to learn. There are two types of Sign-language Sign-supported-English and BSL and they are not the same. But sign-supported English is not real Sign-language. You talk normal English and use sign as a support to what you are saying.
    /Maria

  14. Hello,

    Firstly I would like to compliment you for the website.

    Secondly: I would like to ask you if you have a pure BSL transcription notes?. With pure BSL transcription I mean just a sequence of Gesture’s meanings.
    For example:
    Yesterday I/Me go school. ( this is what I need)
    Instead of the English equivalent:
    I went to school yesterday.

    You name what?. ( this is what I need )
    instead of:
    What’s your name?.

    If you have any possible pure BSL text transcription could you please provide it to me?. I’m trying to create some frequency lists on written BSL that is very helpful in the field of Natural Language Generation. The text can be in text files, pdf files or even a scanned copy of your notes.
    Of course, I will credit the source.
    Thank you.

    Kind Regards,

    Albi.
    albi.1983 [@] Gmail.com

  15. I am learning BSL from a friend who is herself 70% deaf (since birth) and I wish I’d started ages ago! Trouble is, my friend lip-reads very well, but was thrille when I asked her to teach me. I should, at this point, say that I live in Jersey where there is only one official signing teacher who demands ridiculous money (currently ยฃ600 to complete BSL Level 1) which was way out of my financial means. My friend disagrees hugely with this local policy, and is happy to teach a few of us for free purely because she’s so passionate about making BSL more accessible. However, whilst we only have 1 formal lesson a week, and have only been learning for 2 months, we are learning very quickly, but as an English teacher myself I am keen to learn as much as I can about the grammar which underpins BSL, and some of the replies here have been invaluable, so thank you!

    Our next aim in our little class is so form another local signing choir – my deaf friend is, believe it or not, a piano teacher with both deaf and hearing pupils (including my daughter!) and has a keen interest in music in all its forms. In Jersey we have our own local version of the Eisteddfod, and in the music section there is now a competition for signing choirs. A couple of years ago See Hear did a feature on it and the one local signing choir (conducted by my friend) and two UK signing choirs who made the trip over to take part. Until I saw the video of the performances I didn’t realise how emotional a signed song can be – I was nearly in tears by the timethe video finished! And what a fantastic way to learnmore signs (albeit songs are always signed in SSE, not in BSL word order) and have fun and meet new deaf and hearing friends at the same time!

    • Hi Julia, I’m glad some of the information here has helped. It’s a shame it’s so costly to get formal education in Jersey but great that your friend is happy to help teach it for free! Good luck with your signing choir, sounds like a fun thing to do.

  16. Hi Gareth, this post is really helpful! Thank you! I learnt Makaton when I was 4 years old, basic SSE when I was 11, and now I’m working towards BSL level 1. I’ve got the vocab but the sentence structure is challenging.

    I was wondering, when you sign are you thinking in BSL sentence structure??

    And what’s the best way to learn sentence structure, is it just drilling it in, memorising it or flash cards or something?

    • Hi Livia, glad this was useful. I’m a bit rusty now, but when I was signing more often I’d sometimes be thinking in BSL and sometimes in English. The best way of learning for me was practice (ideally with others but by yourself is fine too!), but it probably depends on how you learn best. Good luck with your level 1.

  17. this has been very useful i have just completed my introduction to BSL and been told to do homework (bsl word order) to prep us for level one

  18. Thanks Gareth very helpful for a neat explanation and example of BSL grammar.

    To previous poster:
    Learning other languages like BSL or Spanish doesn’t damage our English it enhances it.

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