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  • Naming British Sign Language 1960–1975
  • Anne Leahy (bio) and Peter R. Brown (bio)

Linguistic, sociocultural, and political texts on British Sign Language (BSL) and the communities that use it have universally cited an October 1975 American Annals of the Deaf article by Mary Brennan (1944–2005) as the first time the designation for BSL was coined in print. While this research brief in no way seeks to diminish the body of Brennan's inestimable contributions, we offer some interesting findings about earlier attempts to name the language. What follows is an expansion of selected mentions in Leahy (2020) that collect and briefly describe eleven published and unpublished sources originated by six authors from November 1960 through August 1975, followed by a tabular summary.


Seven months after Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf (Stokoe 1960a) was published, the concepts of both "American and British sign languages" (Stokoe 1960b) appeared in private correspondence from Stokoe to Rev. Tom H. Sutcliffe (1907–1996), a late-deafened leader who ministered among deaf people and trained others for such work throughout Britain. It is likely that churchmen had not yet consulted Sign [End Page 691] Language Structure by that early stage, as the following year another Church of England representative contacted Stokoe for a copy.


That correspondent was Rev. Percy T. Corfmat (1914–1990), who in 1961 had been assigned to the newly formed subcommittee of the Council of Church Missioners to the Deaf and Dumb charged with investigating the signs used in Britain. Although Corfmat was raised in a signing environment, he confessed in a letter to Stokoe his lingering doubts of his "own system (one cannot call it a language and the word "system" might also be questioned) of gestures and signs" (Corfmat 1961). Missioners1 had already demonstrated interest in "signs," especially for the purpose of translation and interpretation, which they saw as part of their pastoral mandate (Ayliffe 1950; Crellin 1950; Sutcliffe 1949). During a closed meeting, the label "English Sign Language" (National Council of Missioners and Welfare Officers to the Deaf 1963) was preferred to "British," perhaps, as other sources suggest, because records indicate Scotland was considered to have a sufficiently distinct regional dialect. There is no indication that "English Sign Language" in this source or any that follow meant a manual system designed to represent a spoken language, or what came to be known as Signed English (SE) among BSL and BSL-derived communities.

Corfmat later chaired another committee in 1964 at the short-lived British College for Welfare Officers to the Deaf (1963–1969; also the College of Deaf Welfare and Social Studies). The aims of this group were mainly to investigate, expand, and standardize vocabulary in order to train hearing adults for deaf work, "with the hope that signing may one day be taught in Schools for the Deaf" (Corfmat 1966). These records were briefly introduced in Deuchar (1984), which did not mention the use of "English Sign Language" in the first entry into the minutes of the inaugural meeting on November 11, 1964 (Corfmat 1966).

The stated topic of Corfmat (1969) was "Signs, Signing and Signers," and eight different descriptors were capitalized throughout the text: Manual System, English Sign Language, Manual Method of Communication, Sign Method, Manual Language, Sign Language, Signs, and Silent Language. Corfmat included himself in the pronoun [End Page 692] for "our English Sign Language" and argued, as before, that signing by deaf and hearing alike "remained a pictorial method of expression of ideas and moods" and had not been sufficiently organized, or "studied with the view to improvement" to be considered a true system or proper language (1969, 348).

Abrahams Dugdale

The deaf writer Patricia O. Abrahams (1932–2005) earned "high scholastic honours" (Silent World 1953) from the Mary Hare Grammar School in Berkshire, excelled at language arts on a scholarship at Manchester University (Abrahams 1970), and intended to become a writer or "a publisher's translator" ("News and Notes" 1953). While her formal education and family life were conducted largely in spoken and written English, she lived abroad and was a named collaborator on the New Zealand Sign Language...


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