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Indicating plurality in BSL
Plurality in English is marked by a variety of ways. I shall begin by briefly discussing four of
these ways and then strive to discover how plurality is indicated in BSL
1. The marking of nouns can indicate whether number is plural or singular. This can be
demonstrated by the addition of suffixes (‘s’) For example, table/ tables
2. Nouns can be pluralized by adding number words beforehand- five fish / many fish
3. Plurality can also be indicated by the fact that the verb form contrasts plural and
singular nouns (with the verb and noun working together) For example ‘five fish are
swimming / one fish is swimming.
4. There is also number marking within 3rd person singular verbs: ‘he paints’
How can BSL indicate plurality?
As in English BSL can be pluralized in different ways. I shall discuss briefly five different
ways, although I’m sure there may be more.
This has been taken from researchers such as Woll B, Kyle J, Deuchar M, Brennan M and
Brien D. “ While further studies are needed in relation to this and most other areas of BSL
grammar we can make some generalisations” (Brien D 1992, pg 100 ref 7)
The areas that will be discussed are reduplication, (shown with changes within the noun and
a marker of aspect within verb signs), quantifying signs, plurality within classifier forms,
double articulation and plurality within pronouns.
Reduplication (repetition of a sign rather than adding a suffix to some element) is a common
way in BSL of indicating plurality. BSL makes use of different inflections within the plurality of
1. The random inflection can be seen when reduplication is articulated at different points
within the signing space (in no particular arrangement)
2. The sweep inflection is used for a reduplication sign to reflect a specific spatial
organisation. Such as ‘ in rows’ or ‘one behind the other’
Classifier based forms appears to be the most popular method of indicating plurality. Some
signs may take both unmarked plural inflection and also marked forms.
Unmarked plural – CHILDREN involves making a repeated download movement to the right.
Marked form of plural – 3 children (specification of number has been used to indicate child +
plural) or the addition of the sweep inflection to result in the meaning of lots of / many
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The above examples are located in neutral space; “ It appears possible to mark plurality in
signs that work in neutral space but it may be more difficult to shift location in signs made on
the body” (Deuchar M 1984 pg 87 ref 9)
The signs showing this particular rule could be such as:
Child – children
Building – buildings (can be shown by making building movements of both hands in neutral
space in front of the signer and pluralized by making repeating movements of the same sign
in a different location
An example of a plural noun located on the body would be the sign ‘man’ which would use a
repeated downward movement to show ‘men’.
When indicating plurality of a compound sign usually the final part of the compound is
repeated. Such as the sign ‘ several reports’ would report the second part of the sign (‘show
on paper’) which is articulated in a horizontal line at two different points in space. The first part
of the sign ‘say’ is articulated once.
When using reduplication as a function of marking aspect in verb signs the repetition can
either be fast or slow. “fast repetition may indicate durative aspect, and slow repetition
indicates iterative aspect” (Deuchar M 1984 pg 87)
For example if the sign ‘quarrel’ (little fingers clashing) was repeating slowly it would mean ‘to
quarrel repeatedly’. If it was repeated quickly then it would mean ‘to quarrel for a long time’
Quantifying signs
BSL indicates plurality by the use of number signs as quantifiers, quantifier signs and non
manual intensifiers.
1. Number signs such as 5 fish
2. Quantifier signs (which normally occur after the noun form), such as lots, many, few,
some, various.
3. Non manual intensifiers. These are used alongside the quantifiers to modify their
meaning. The puffed cheek intensifier can be added to ‘many’ to mean ‘very many’.
The rounded lip intensifier can be added to ‘few’ to mean ‘very few’
Plurality within classifier forms
A method of indicating plurality with concrete nouns (ie something you can touch- glass,
plate) is to replace the noun by a related classifier form and then add one or more plural
Some classifiers are themselves plural anyway such as the 5 people classifier (used to mean
‘many’) and classifier forms for persons such as ‘ two persons (V) ‘three persons (W) and four
persons (4)
How can singular classifiers be pluralized?
There are many plural inflections that are used within classifier forms (see Brien D 1992 pg
102-103 ref 7) although I shall only mention three.
1. The sweep inflection (ie to show ‘many books in a row’ this is shown by a smooth
directional movement, usually with the 2 hands separating)
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2. The individuated inflection (‘individual pencils in a row’). To show objects individually
the sign is articulated using a chopping action whilst moving in one direction.
3. The random inflection (‘papers scattered all over the place’). This is used to show that
there are several items but in no particular arrangement. The hands produce
alternating movements. If the signer wanted to place emphasis on the random nature
then they could add an adverbial (such as ‘th’)
These inflections can be used horizontally and vertically. The sweep inflection can be used
vertically to show ‘a pile of cups’ and the individuated inflection could show ‘a pile of flat
Double articulation
Double articulation can indicate plurality where two hands are used to articulate the sign in
what would normally be a one handed sign. This is used also using the random inflection
such as ‘plane – many planes’
Plurality within pronouns
Again these use similar patterning when discussing classifier forms.
The sweep inflection (smooth arc movement) can pluralize the pronoun
Individuated inflection (repeated stabbing movement)
Random inflection (alternating stabbing movements made at random positions in space)
Number incorporation within pronouns are used to give meanings such as we (both), three of
us, four of you
Copyright Learn Sign Language Ltd, 176 Avenue Road, Rushden, Northants NN100SW