University of Edinburgh
Empower '97: International Conference on Deaf Education

Workshop 1: The CD-ROM Dictionary of Deaf Community and Culture:

Some Issues in the Creation of Sign Language Dictionaries

David Brien, Co-Director, Deaf Studies Research Unit, and Judith Collins, Research Fellow; both University of Durham

In this presentation we will seek to describe and demonstrate the main features of the CD-ROM Dictionary of Deaf Community and Culture and discuss certain issues which have been central to the development of the project.

The CD-ROM Dictionary has been produced by the staff of the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Durham University in collaboration with three other organisations: Bright Side of Life Computer Consultancy Maarssen, The Netherlands; Nederlandse Stichting voor het Dove en Slechthorende Kind (NSDSK), Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Pin Drop Productions, Newark on Trent, United Kingdom. The group was known as the SignBase Consortium.

Over a three year period the consortium created a sign language database which was used to develop two sign language CD-ROM applications: a BSL/English Dictionary (the subject of this presentation) and a teaching resource for Dutch deaf children in Sign Language of the Netherlands and written Dutch. The project was funded under the European Community's TIDE programme.

In designing the structure and content of the CD-ROM dictionary the DSRU drew on previous work undertaken by the Unit in producing the Dictionary of British Sign Language/English (Brien,1992) for the British Deaf Association. This Dictionary was designed on sign linguistic principles. While it was bilingual, it took as its starting point the signs of BSL rather than the words of English. Whilst this may seem an obvious decision, its rarity can be seen by an examination of the sign language compilations and dictionaries produced over the last twenty years, even those produced in the 1990's. In particular, the Dictionary of BSL/English organised the content of the dictionary in terms of linguistic formational parameters of BSL and defined signs directly from the perspective of Deaf users. The Dictionary of BSL/English also made a serious attempt to produce an account of the productive lexicon of BSL, although the resources for achieving this within a text dictionary were extremely limited (Brennan, 1992, 1997).

In reviewing the impact of the Dictionary of American Sign Language (Stokoe, Casterline and Croneberg,1965) in a paper presented to the Deaf Way Conference, Stokoe drew attention to the failure of most sign dictionaries to reflect the language used by Deaf native users of sign languages. Dictionaries are often defined as being about the words of a language. The dictionary produced by Stokoe et al was about the words, ie the signs of American Sign Language. The majority of sign dictionaries produced since the publication of the Dictionary of American Sign Language have not been about the signs as used in sign languages but about signs used as supports to the words of a spoken language. Typically such publications are organised around the individual words of the spoken language, presented in alphabetical order. Sign equivalents for each word are usually presented through photographs or drawings. A major feature of such dictionaries is the absence of definitions, it being assumed that each sign would have exactly the same meaning(s) as the written word with which it is linked. Stokoe contrasted such publications with what he described as "serious dictionaries". Sign dictionaries should, he argued, contain the equivalent type of information on the lexicon of a sign language as we would expect to find in dictionaries of written/spoken language. Stokoe saw serious dictionaries of sign languages as resources which " can wipe out, as nothing else can so well, the false ideas that ignorant people have about deaf people and deaf society and sign language."(Stokoe, 1989). It was not until the late 1980's and early 1990's that serious dictionaries of sign languages began to be published based on the principles which had informed Stokoe et al's Dictionary of American Sign Language. Examples of such dictionaries include the Thai, Australian, Italian, Kenyan and British Sign Language Dictionaries listed in the bibliography of this paper. These dictionaries take as their starting point the fact that sign languages are independent languages and not visual representations of spoken languages. The content of these dictionaries is usually organised on linguistic principles appropriate to sign languages such as handshape, orientation, location, movement and non-manual features. "Serious" sign language dictionaries may be characterised as dictionaries which:

  • typically provide more than one single word for a particular sign;
  • recognise the importance of non-manual features, by including multi-channel signs within the lexicon and by explicitly providing non-manual information;
  • provide detailed information on meaning relating to the sign itself and its actual use by deaf people, rather than accounts of meaning based on the related spoken words;
  • provide information on signs which are made up of more than one meaningful unit, for example, compound signs and polymorphemic verbs.

In designing a dictionary an editor seeks first to identify the needs of the potential users of the dictionary. These will clearly differ between groups, eg the needs of adult native users will differ from those of children or those learning the language as a second or foreign language. What is most notable in relation to the history of sign dictionaries is how few have been produced for use by deaf native users of sign languages. The vast majority have been aimed at hearing learners. In producing the Dictionary of British Sign Language/English and the CD-ROM Dictionary of Deaf Community and Culture the DSRU sought to produce dictionaries which would be of value and interest to deaf native users of British Sign Language. There are however inherent limitations in producing such dictionaries in book form even if they are organised on sign linguistic principles. Sign languages are visual-gestural languages without conventional written forms. It is therefore impossible to convey adequately the nature of such languages through photographs/drawings and the written word. One is in the situation of presenting information about a visual language through a written language. One additional, major consequence of this is that it limits access for deaf people for whom a written language is their second language. It was for this reason that the DSRU undertook, in collaboration with our partners, the SignBase project. Multimedia technology provides the means by which the lexicon of a sign language can be presented through video movies ie in its own terms as a visual-gestural language. It enables information about the signs, eg definitions, to be presented directly in the sign language. Multimedia technology allows sign language dictionary compilers to overcome the two major deficiencies of book based dictionaries - the inadequacy of the representations of the signs and the impossibility of presenting information about a sign language in that sign language.

The resources available through the SignBase project did not allow us to represent the contents of the Dictionary of British Sign Language/English on CD-ROM. We therefore chose to produce a dictionary of signs on the theme of Deaf Community and Culture. The dictionary contains two hundred entries. The amount of memory required to provide signed definition movies for each sign and signed example sentences restricted the number of entries we were able to include on a single CD-ROM. It is our intention, subject to the availability of funding to produce further dictionary CD-ROMs.

As we explain in the Final Report (SignBase, 1997), the SignBase project allowed the consortium to take a new approach to sign meaning within both the SignBase database and CD-ROM dictionaries. This section of our presentation is taken from the Projects Final Report (see bibliography: copies of the report may be requested from the TIDE office).

The SignBase team were keen to ensure that the new opportunities provided by multimedia technology were maximised in the presentation of information. There is clearly the danger of carrying over some of the inadequacies of text formats into the new multimedia formats. As stressed above it is important that the information presented in dictionaries of sign languages is equivalent to that found in dictionaries of spoken languages.

The DSRU had already undertaken work in the area of sign semantics and had pioneered a sign and deaf-oriented approach within the Dictionary of BSL/English (Brien, 1992; Brien and Turner, 1994). Moreover, several concurrent research projects contributed to the DSRU's and therefore the team's thinking on these issues. These included work on the 'Productive Lexicon of BSL' financed by the Leverhulme Trust and work on sign dictionaries and sign meaning, which constituted part of 'Inter-Sign' project, supported by the EC Human Capital and Mobility programme.

It seemed an obvious first step that definitions should be developed within the sign language concerned, in this case initially BSL. This in itself, however, is an important point, since an 'easier' way forward may have simply been to translate existing text definitions into BSL and include these as movies within the SignBase database and CD-ROM Dictionary. However, the team recognised that such an approach could yet again give priority to spoken language and hearing perceptions of meaning. The DSRU team were therefore keen to examine the following kinds of questions:

Should definitions of sign meanings be equivalent to those we would expect to find in spoken language dictionaries?

Does the notion of "definition" fit with the way in which deaf people view the world?

Deaf people appear to use examples as "a way through to meaning". Is this an acceptable way of presenting meaning in sign language dictionaries?

The DSRU team believed it was essential to arrive at meaning from a Deaf perspective. As well as drawing upon ongoing work of deaf staff within the DSRU, in March 1995, the DSRU hosted an international workshop on these issues in Durham as part of the DSRUs contribution to the Inter-Sign project. Eight deaf and eight hearing researchers were able to compare ideas on the appropriateness of different types of definition. Deaf people from participating countries developed their own definitions for shared concepts. The findings from this work suggested that:

  • Deaf people do indeed seem to start from a different conceptual base: for example, their concept of "Deaf" seemed different from that of most hearing people (see below):
  • Deaf people appeared to give greater focus to the role of context;
  • Signs for objects often had visual description as the starting point or focus of the deaf person's definition, rather than, for example, the function of the object;
  • Once the signer was 'freed' from relying on spoken language-based definitions, there emerged an explanatory sign style which deaf people accepted as appropriate and comprehensible.

The SignBase project team therefore attempted to adopt these findings within the development of sign definitions to be placed in the SignBase database and in the CD-ROM dictionary. There has been an extremely positive response to these definitions from deaf users in several different countries. Deaf people seem to respond with almost immediate nods of recognition - and some delight, that at long last their intuitions and perceptions are being reflected in something as formal as a dictionary. Some hearing people have had somewhat different responses. Those involved closely with deaf people have tended to share this sense of recognition. Those less involved are sometimes taken aback at having to rethink their assumptions. Perhaps most importantly, these signed definitions demonstrate in a sometimes dramatic way that the meanings of signs simply cannot be equated with the meanings of spoken language glosses. The definitions are also helping people to recognise that individual signs may have quite different connotations to other signs with the same English gloss or indeed to apparently related English words.

We believe a major achievement of the SignBase project, then, has been to reconceptualise not just the overall notion of a sign dictionary, but the very concept of sign definition. There is still major work to be done in this area. However, the definitions already entered in the SignBase database and in the dictionary applications have, we believe, made an important contribution to the developing field of sign semantics and lexicography.

The following examples from the CD-ROM Dictionary of Deaf Community and Culture illustrate how signs have been defined from the perspective of deaf native users.


This sign refers to a person who uses British Sign Language, is unable to hear and is a member of a deaf signing community.

This sign is used to refer to a person who is unable to hear or can hear very little.

Residential School:

A residential school is a boarding school where deaf children are educated and socialise with other deaf children. Such schools have had a central role in the development of deaf culture and in enabling deaf children to acquire a sign language.


Access is the opportunity or right to use or see something. For example, in the deaf context, access to information or services could mean access to information or services in a sign language or through an interpreter.

Deaf Poetry:

Deaf poetry is a piece of signing in which the signs used are chosen for a special reason, such as their shape or some other visual aspect and are combined to express for example, a particular inner experience or story.

Congress of Milan:

The Congress took place in Milan in Northern Italy. The Congress was attended mainly by hearing teachers of deaf children, who after discussion took the decision to prohibit the use of sign languages in the education of deaf children. The decision is seen by deaf people as a defining moment, signalling a period of oppression for their languages and cultures.

In line with the objectives of the TIDE programme the target group for the CD-ROM Dictionary is the Deaf Community. We believe, however, that the CD-ROM Dictionary contains information of interest to all users of BSL. It will have particular value for deaf people who work professionally with sign language. This latter group will include deaf teachers of British Sign Language, deaf interpreters, deaf translators and those involved in Deaf Awareness programmes and within all levels of education.

In addition the CD-ROM will be of considerable interest to a wide group of hearing people including hearing parents of deaf children, hearing professionals working with the Deaf Community and the expanding numbers of people learning BSL.

In the development of the dictionary, particular consideration was given to the importance of ensuring that - wherever possible - the information was presented in the first or preferred language of the deaf user. This can be demonstrated particularly by the Help-function which supports the user through explanatory information presented visually both in BSL and English. The importance of exploiting different visual effects is also shown through the use of visual indicators, such as visual progress indicators, and the use of the central location for the movies.

The bilingual nature of the SignBase database is reflected in the structure of the CD-ROM Dictionary. Information is available about BSL, both in BSL itself and in written English. The CD-ROM will allow users to access information about individual signs either through the sign language itself or through written English. The CD-ROM dictionary displays detailed information relating to each sign entry, as in traditional text dictionaries (the Show function). In addition it allows the user to search for specific signs or particular sets of signs based on common characteristics selected by the user (the Find function). These may be formational, eg handshape; morphological, eg classifier; syntactic, eg noun; representational, ie through the Durham Notation System or in terms of usage, eg school, region or level of formality.

The CD-ROM provides the user with demonstrations of how the sign is produced. These demonstrations are available both with respect to individual signs (citation forms) and signs in context (example movies). The presentation of the meanings of signs directly in a sign language - in this case BSL - represents a major step forward for deaf users.

The CD-ROM seeks to provide an authoritative dictionary which confirms the status of sign languages as languages in their own right. It therefore contains in depth information on key areas of sign structure and use. However, users may by pass information that is not directly relevant to their current needs. So for example a user can retrieve information relating to the translation of a single sign or obtain information about units grammatical usage.

Multimedia technology represents a major technical advance in relation to the creation of sign language dictionaries. It enables us to envisage, for example, the creation of bilingual signed dictionaries of sign languages, such as an Irish Sign Language - British Sign Language Dictionary. More generally multimedia technology provides a resource which will transform research into sign languages. It is important that this relationship between sign language research and the creation of sign language dictionaries is fully recognised - without research "serious" sign language dictionaries cannot be produced.


Akach, PAO (Ed) [1991] Kenyan Sign Language Dictionary; Nairobi: Kenyan National Association of the Deaf.

Brennan, M [1992] The Visual World of BSL: in Brien, D (Ed) Dictionary of British Sign/English; London: Faber and Faber.

Brennan, M [1997] In Sight-In Mind: Visual Encoding in Sign Language: in Loades, C (Ed) Proceedings of the Australian and New Zealand Conference for Educators of the Deaf; Adelaide: ANZCED.

Brien, D (Ed) [1992] Dictionary of British Sign Language/English; London: Faber and Faber.

Brien, D & Turner, GH [1994] Lemmas, Dilemmas and Lexical Anisomorphism: Presenting Meanings in the First BSL Dictionary :in Ahlgren, I, Bergman, B & Brennan, M (Eds) Perspectives on Sign Language Usage: Papers from the Fifth International Symposium of Sign Language Research (Volume 2); Durham: International Sign Linguistics Association.

Brien, D & Brennan, M [1995] Sign Language Dictionaries: Issues and Developments: in Bos, H & Schermer, TM (Eds) Sign Language Research Proceedings of the Fourth European Congress on Sign Language Research; Hamburg: Signum Press.

Johnston, T [1989] Auslan Dictionary: A Dictionary of the Sign Language of the Australian Deaf Community; Australia Deafness Resources.

Radutzky, E (Ed) [1992] Dizionario Bilingue Elementare Della Lingua Italiana Dei Segni; Rome: Edizioni Kappa.

SignBase Final Report: European Community TIDE Project: Number 1282. Copies of the report may be requested from the TIDE Office, Rue de la Loi 200, B-1049 Brussels, Belgium. The report was prepared by David Brien, Mary Brennan, Martyn Simpson, Ernst Thoutenhoofd, Trude Schermer and Truus van der Lem.

Stokoe, WC [1989] A Sign Language Dictionary: In Erting, CJ, Johnson, C, Smith, DL & Snider, B (Eds) The Deaf Way; Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press [1994].

Stokoe, WC, Casterline, DC & Croneberg, CG [1965] A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles; Washington DC Gallaudet College Press (Revised 1975) Maryland: Linstok Press.

Suwanarat, M et al [1986] Thai Sign Language Dictionary; Thailand: National Association of the Deaf in Thailand and the Human Assistance Programme.