This is a rare example of Scotland’s deaf heritage appearing on the map. The deaf community’s histories go unnoticed, and British Sign Language (BSL) is often overlooked on lists of the country’s indigenous minority languages. People may mistakenly believe that BSL is not a ‘real’ language at all, that it was ‘invented’ by hearing people; in fact, it developed naturally – as languages do – through communities. There is regional variation in BSL and many sign dialects in Scotland, even some debate about whether these are distinctive enough to constitute “Scottish Sign Language”. One thing is certain: BSL has never been a manual ‘version’ of spoken English. It has a completely different grammar and an equal capacity for complexity; I’ve heard it described as a ‘visual-spatial sketchpad’.
There have been deaf signing communities in Scotland since at least the Industrial Revolution, and even some evidence from the 15th century. Yet there is no written form of any sign language, therefore no historical records of signed literature and lore. Deaf culture was – perhaps ironically – passed on through the ‘oral’ tradition: ‘by sign of hand’ not ‘word of mouth’. Equally ironically given its visual nature, BSL culture remains essentially invisible to most hearing people – simply not on their radar.
Place-names are one example of this. Missing from maps and road-signs are their unwritten sign-names. Granted, many of these are borrowed from the hearing world, which reflects the influence of majority culture on BSL. To illustrate: BSL’s fingerspelling alphabet can transliterate written names, as in FK for Falkirk, GW for Glasgow. Other sign-names are based on homonyms: a sign for live is employed for Livingston, and a sign for bath combines with gate to form Bathgate. Yet some sign-names have no apparent connection to the ‘hearing’ name for the place, having developed from a different set of references. Some are obscure (I know no explanation for the sign-name Perth), while others play on visual associations (Shetland’s sign-name alludes to the patterned sweaters traditionally worn there) or historical ones (Stirling may be a cognate of victory, referring to the Battle of Bannockburn; Portobello may allude to its links with the beer industry). There are, predictably, many potential interpretations and folk etymologies for sign-names, and there has not yet been a comprehensive place-name survey undertaken in BSL.
For me, one particularly inspiring thing about learning BSL is that another dimension of nomenclature is emerging on my map of Scotland, and with it a sensation of strangerhood in places I felt I knew intimately. My general understanding of the Celtic, Anglic, Scandinavian and Pictish roots of Scottish place-names is enriched by a set of toponyms in a different modality, developed in a signed tradition. If Scotland of the past and present is a palimpsest of overlaid and interlocking communities, then there is another heritage written in invisible ink: the handprint of the deaf community, another lens through which to explore our surroundings.
Ella Leith is a third year PhD student in Scottish Ethnology, a BSL learner and an amateur place-names enthusiast.
Many thanks to Bryan Marshall for the conversations that inspired this blog. Any errors in the sign-name clips are my own.