Royal Society and Scottish Sensory Centre team up to ‘rewild’ British Sign Language with 200 new signs for common environmental terms

10 August 2023

  • Scientists and British Sign Language users team up to make climate and biodiversity science more accessible
  • ‘Carbon footprint’, ‘greenhouse gases’ and ‘rewilding’ among the first two-hundred new signs developed
  • A-Z glossary of videos demonstrating signs published online today

The Royal Society and the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC), based at the University of Edinburgh, have brought together a team of scientists and British Sign Language (BSL) users to make climate and biodiversity science more accessible by creating new signs for common environmental terms

The first two hundred signs, themed around biodiversity, ecosystems, the physical environment and pollution, have launched today. A full glossary and videos demonstrating the terms being signed are available to access online.

Among the signs are common and technical terms that did not previously have a standardised gesture in BSL, including:

  • Carbon footprint: Left hand as a C shape with right hand fingers moving away from the left hand to resemble carbon being released to the environment.
  • Greenhouse gases: Both hands in circular shapes move around to represent gases, then put the left hand at the horizontal position and move the right hand, with the index finger pointing, down and back up to the left hand to show the sunlight reflecting on Earth’s surface.
  • Natural selection (the natural process whereby the best-adapted individuals survive longer, have more offspring, and thereby spread their characteristics): Two index fingers moving forward + the right hand, index still pointed, ‘falls down’, and the left index finger continues to stay upright and moves forward.
  • Neonicotinoids (a widely used group of insecticides linked with the deaths of bees): Fingerspell ‘N’ two times + ‘spray’, with face looking concerned.
  • Peat bogs: both hands (flat palm) lay on top of each other at a horizontal position, stack alternating hand on top of the other three times to resemble dead plants falling and laying. Then sweep the right hand (still at horizontal position) in a circular motion to show the area of peat bog.
  • Rewilding (the process of creating habitats that are similar to the conditions present before the natural habitat was changed by human actions): Two flat hands, palms facing down, then drop palms while pulling hands back (sign for ‘habitat’ but upside down). Then right hand at a distance from the body turns from palm facing up to down.
  • Tipping point: two clenched fists together and twist hands slightly in opposite directions to represent ‘change’. Then two flat hands, palms down at horizontal position, move up and down slightly with concerned facial expression.

The terms were drawn from the GCSE and A level syllabus and reviewed by environmental scientists before being developed into signs by the BSL glossary team over a series of workshops. 

Once the project has been completed, signs for 400 environmental terms will have been developed, helping to address the current lack of scientific terms available in British Sign Language.

The next 200 signs – themed around energy and sustainability, and environmental impacts on humans – will include ‘global warming’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘deforestation’ and ‘nuclear fusion’.

Dr Audrey Cameron OBE, Chancellor’s Fellow and BSL Glossary Project Coordinator at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“These new BSL signs are an important first step towards allowing BSL users to not only share their appreciation of the natural world but also to join the conversation about the current threats to biodiversity and the environment. The representational nature of sign language offers us a unique lens through which to engage with the natural world around us. For deaf students and scientists, it means they no longer have to rely on fingerspelling complex terms.

“The development of the glossary will benefit, for example, those attending future global climate and biodiversity summits and enable deaf voices to be heard as part of the debate – it will also act as a resource for sign language interpreters. 

“The sign glossary development team was careful to ensure that the suggested signs were truly visually representative of the terms and concepts they cover.”

Professor Jeremy Sanders, Chair of the Royal Society Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said:

“Climate change and biodiversity loss are some of the most important challenges we face today – and they affect us all. It is vital for the Royal Society that everyone can engage with the science that underpins these issues if we are to work together to build understanding and find solutions.

“We hope these new signs will inspire and empower the next generation of BSL-using students and allow practising scientists to share their vital work with the world.”