5.11 Phonology in BSL

English Notes
BSL Video

Phonology in BSL


In the past people thought that signs were made up of gestures that did not have phonemes. They thought that this meant that sign languages could not be analysed as real languages. But sign languages do also have phonological systems.

Signs are made up of basically meaningless contrastive units that can be assembled to produce meaningful units. The basic “parameters” that make up signs are the handshape, location movement, orientation and non-manual features. Each parameter has a set of distinctive permitted forms that the language can select from. Changing the form of one of these parameters could change the whole sign.

With these 5 parameters we can see sets of minimal pairs in BSL.

If we keep four parameters the same but only change one, we can see minimal pairs in BSL. For example:

Change handshape: THINK KNOW; SAY THANK-YOU

Change location: THANK-YOU DON’T-KNOW; NAME AFTERNOON

Change movement: YOURS COMMUNIST; SENSITIVE THEATRE; ARRIVE JAM

Change orientation: SOLDIER MORNING: BRITAIN TODAY

Change non-manual feature: CHEW WASH; RELIEVED DEPRESSED


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