8.1 Internal Changes

English Notes
BSL Video

Internal Changes


Internal changes in BSL follow several different patterns. In all cases, the signs are becoming easier to articulate and understand in some way.

a) handshape changes

When signs with two hands have two different handshapes, the sign changes so that the two hands have the same handshape. For example, the sign BETTER used to be made with hands of two different handshapes (you might still see this in use sometimes). The active hand was a fist with an extended thumb, and the passive hand was a fist with an extended forefinger. KNIFE used to be made with the extended index finger of each hand, and now both the index finger and middle finger are extended on each hand. Older signers used to use the first of these but now the second form is widespread. Perhaps it spread from the sign SHEFFIELD that comes from the sign KNIFE and uses the handshape with both fingers extended.

Another example is in the sign MINICOM. It is now not uncommon to see both hands with the "TELEPHONE" handshape. This is not so in the citation form of the sign, but occurs commonly in conversational use. There is also a change in movement, as may be seen in the next point.

b) movement changes

If a sign has two movements, it may drop to one. For example an old sign CENTRE used to have two movements: firstly, the active hand would circle above the upturned passive palm, and then it would move down to contact the centre of the palm. The initial circling movement has now been dropped, and the modern sign now simply has a contact of the active hand against the passive palm.

This loss of movement is also seen in compounds. Think about MINICOM again. The citation form of the sign has the active hand holding still, and the passive hand moving left and right, while the fingers wiggle. In other words, there is both an external and an internal movement of the hand. In conversation, however, both hands move left and right, alternately, and the internal wiggling of the fingers on the passive hand is lost.

c) location changes

If there are two locations, it may drop to one. An old form of the sign GIVE shows the hand first touching the chest, and then moving from neutral space near the signer's body in the direction of the recipient.

This reduction in specific locations is also seen in compounds. For example, the sign BELIEVE is historically a compound of THINK and TRUE. However the forehead location of THINK has now been lost and the sign BELIEVE begins in neutral space. The same is true of PROMISE, which is formed from SAY and TRUE. Here, the initial location of SAY has been reduced to neutral space around the upper chest.

The signs EXPECT and CHECK have also lost a part, although in these signs, it is the first morpheme that has been lost. In EXPECT, the components were THINK and MAYBE, while in CHECK, the components were SEE and MAYBE. In both cases the initial SEE has been deleted. The difference now in primarily in location of the hand that originally meant MAYBE.

Signs also tend to move away from the upper arm and down towards the hand. For example, TROUBLE used to be signed on the forearm and now it is signed on the back of the hand. In the old sign DOOR, the active hand used to contact the passive forearm but now it contacts the back of the passive hand. Similarly, in WORK the active hand used to strike the passive forearm but now it strikes the edge of the passive hand.

e) changes to unmarked handshapes

Handshapes may alter to become one of the " unmarked" handshapes of a sign language. These are handshapes that are most common, most easy to distinguish from other handshapes, and are usually learned first by children acquiring the language because they are physically the easiest to make.

These changes are particularly seen when an initialised sign is used but the letter handshape is marked (that is, more complicated), so it is changed to an unmarked handshape that is not linked to the manual alphabet. For example, the letter handshape for -m- is very marked (there are very few signs in BSL that use it, except maybe BOY-SCOUT) and yet there are lots of initialised signs that use the -m- handshape. However, in signs such as EVERY-MONTH, MOTHER and MONDAY the active hand is often a 'B' hand, not the normal "official" -m- handshape. The B hand is unmarked.

f) change in hand orientation

There is also a trend for signs made on the back of a passive hand to be made on the palm of the passive hand. THEATRE and STAND used to be made on the back of the hand, but are now often made on the palm. Some regional signs for MATTRESS are made with different orientations of the hand, while the other parameters of the sign stay the same.

All these changes are internal changes, brought about by the rules of BSL, making the signs easier to articulate or to understand but they are quite small changes.


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