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Analysing British sign language through the lens of systemic functional linguistics

Rudge, Luke A.

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Luke Rudge
Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics


Approaches to understanding language via Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) have resulted in a compendium of literature focussing on language as a ‘social semiotic.’ One such area of this literature comprises systemic functional grammars: descriptions of various languages and the way in which they create meaning. Despite the application of SFL to numerous languages and the creation of systemic functional grammars, a common thread is that of modality: SFL has been applied to numerous languages in the spoken and written modalities, but not in any detail to languages in the visual-spatial modality.

My thesis presents an initial attempt at analysing British Sign Language (BSL) through the systemic functional lens. Calling on various theories and methods found in sign linguistics and SFL, I perform an analysis on a sample of BSL clauses (N = 1,375) from three perspectives: how BSL manages exchanges of communication (the interpersonal metafunction); how BSL encodes aspects of experience and reality (the experiential metafunction); and how BSL may be organised to produce a coherent text with variance in information prominence (the textual metafunction). As a result, I present three sets of system networks based on these three metafunctions, complete with realisation statements and examples.

This thesis provides considerable impact. From an academic perspective, this is the first in-depth systemic functional description of a language in the visual-spatial modality, providing insight both into how such languages function, and how analyses of these languages may feed back into those of spoken and written languages. From a social perspective, the BSL system networks can assist language learners of any level as a point of reference in clause construction. Furthermore, intermediate and higher BSL qualifications stipulate knowledge of sign linguistics as a required component, yet these assessments are based on resources that have not been updated in nearly twenty years. As such, the products of this thesis may go towards informing future BSL assessments.


Rudge, L. A. Analysing British sign language through the lens of systemic functional linguistics. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 7, 2019
Keywords British Sign Language
Systemic Functional Linguistics
Visual-spatial modality
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