Sign order

British Sign Language (BSL) is an interesting language for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

The first is that the spoken aspect and the written aspects are quite seperate from each other. Although BSL is used in conversation, English is used as the basis for written communication.
When I’ve looked at the Facebook posts of my deaf friends whose primary method of communication is signed BSL, and compared those to the posts of those who have English as their primary language, the difference in style is pronounced.

The divergence originates in how the languages build their description. In english the progress of a sentence is left to right, start to finish. The order of words in English is very important for determining the sequence of events. is pretty straight forward, we know that Noun1 performed an action on Noun2. We know this because of the order, if we swapped Noun1 and Noun2’s positions in the sentence, the action would be reversed.

BSL has a different way of doing things. Rather than the sequential sentence that English uses, BSL can best be seen as animated sketches of scenes and concepts.

We begin with setting the relative time of the scene to be described, and then define the topic of the scene. Once this is done we start describing the relevant details of the scene, working from the background in.

To take the sentence “the man crossed the bridge” and turn it into a BSL scene, we would start with the topic, since there is no specific time associated with this event.
The grammar for that goes something like “Bridge (using a sign appropriate to the style of bridge)”, “Man”, and then using a freeform hand motion to describe the man crossing the bridge.

Imagine the picture the sentence “the man crosses the bridge” in your head, word by word, and you realise that if you build up the picture word by word you end up with some odd images. “The man crosses the-” leaves you with an image of a man crossing nothing. Is it a road? a bridge? room?

Its important that before we describe something doing an action, that the background and context for that action is properly defined.
Programmers will recognise this as simply needing to initialise variables before performing operations using them.

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