British Sign Language Adds Over 100 New Signs For Scientific Terms Thanks To This Student


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

sign of science

Liam Mcmulkin shows one of the signs he has developed to represent science words that previously lacked representation in sign languages. University of Dundee

Scottish scientists are reducing the obstacles for deaf students to study science by inventing signs for important scientific words, making it easier for deaf scientists to communicate at conferences in the process.

Liam Mcmulkin, who is about to start a masters degree in life sciences at the University of Dundee, is responsible for more than 100 signs for scientific terms now being accepted by British Sign Language.


Recognizing deaf school students were struggling with the lack of signs for physics words such as ampere and vacuum, the Scottish Sensory Centre set about creating a British Sign Language (BSL) science glossary for high school students. They combined some signs already in use by deaf scientists, but not widely known, and invented others, making them connect to show the way, for example, the sign for mass (a fist) and the sign for density (a hand around a fist) relate to each other. Videos of the glossary are available online.

Lacking signs for physics concepts makes the subject harder, but at least anyone lacking those signs can fall back on fingerspelling, using the sign for each letter. Things get more difficult when you’re dealing with the long and often very similar words used in organic chemistry.

As a first-year student, Mcmulkin quickly discovered how hard it was for his interpreters to keep up with lectures when they had to fingerspell 20-letter words. It also stretched his concentration for him to follow what they were signing when very different chemicals or categories could differ by a single letter.  

Wrestling with the problem in his second year Mcmulkin gave the example of “deoxyribonucleotide” and “deoxyribonucleoside”.


Mcmulkin and his interpreter invented some signs on the fly, but that wasn’t much use if he found anyone else to discuss his subjects with, and every new deaf student had to start from scratch.

Mcmulkin decided to be proactive, and received a summer scholarship to spend the summer of 2017 developing new signs, and presenting them to a conference to judge their suitability to become part of BSL.

“Being a deaf student can be challenging but I am thrilled to have the opportunity to meet world-leading scientists from across the University and develop signs that may make a significant difference to anyone dreaming of learning and leading in the sciences,” Mcmulkin said at the time.

Creating new signs is not an easy process, as they need to be easily distinguished from existing ones, particularly those that might be used in the same context.


“You have to think about the meaning of the word,” Mcmulkin told the BBC. "Sign involves hand shape, orientation and location to signify the meaning.”

However, this work has now born fruit, with the BBC reporting over 100 of Mcmulkin’s signs are now being taken up by BSL, other students, and researchers.

Other English-speaking nations have their own sign languages that differ from BSL to varying degrees. American sign language (ASL) notably has more in common with the French equivalent than BSL. However, new and useful signs from one will usually be picked up by others, just as words from one spoken language become incorporated into others.



[H/T: BBC Scotland]