PhD Supervision: Summary

  • Dr. Christopher Stone (secondary supervisor), PhD 2006, University of Bristol
  • Dr. Helen Earis (primary supervisor), PhD 2008, UCL
  • Dr. Rose Stamp (primary supervisor), PhD 2013, UCL
  • Dr. Zed Sevcikova (primary supervisor), PhD 2013, UCL
  • Ma Yunyi (Christine Ma) (secondary supervisor), PhD in prep, UCL
  • Heidi Proctor (primary supervisor), PhD in prep, UCL
  • Matt Brown (primary supervisor), PhD in prep, UCL


Stamp, Rose. 2013. Sociolinguistic variation, language change and contact in the British Sign Language (BSL) lexicon. Doctoral dissertation, University College London. [link to 2-part pdf]

BSL exhibits considerable regional lexical variation. Results from previous studies suggest that there has been a reduction in regional differences since the introduction of BSL on television (Woll et al., 1991) and increased regional contact (Woll, 1987). Based on these findings, this project aims to investigate lexical variation and change in BSL and its relationship to regional contact. Regional variation in the signs for colours, countries, numbers and UK place names were analysed from the BSL Corpus Project data (Schembri et al., under review) to consider their correlation with signers’ age, gender, school location, social class, ethnicity, teaching experience and language background (whether the signer has deaf or hearing parents). The results suggest that levelling may be taking place with younger signers using a decreasing variety of regionally distinct variants. Dialect contact and long-term linguistic accommodation are considered to be contributing factors in levelling (Trudgill, 1986). To investigate this as a possible explanation for language change, 25 pairs of BSL signers from different regional backgrounds were involved in a conversational ‘Diapix’ task (Van Engen et al., 2010) and a comprehension task. Observation of the conversational data reveals that, despite conflicting evidence as to the degree of comprehension of BSL regional varieties (e.g., Kyle & Allsop, 1982; Woll et al., 1991), participants had no difficulties understanding one another. It appears that signers from different regions often rely on English mouthing produced simultaneously with signing to disambiguate the meaning of regional signs. Results also suggest that participants performed best comprehending Birmingham and London varieties. Lexical accommodation was found to be minimal suggesting that language change in BSL is not influenced primarily by contact with other varieties but rather that language change appears to be the result of recent changes in language transmission (i.e., the closure of schools for deaf children).

This dissertation was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), British Sign Language Corpus Project, Grant RES-062-23-0825.

Contact: rose_stamp(at)

Sevcikova, Zed. 2013. Categorical versus gradient properties of handling handshapes in British Sign Language (BSL). Doctoral dissertation, University College London. [pdf: 13.4MB]

Sign languages include partially lexicalised signs (known as depicting constructions, DCs) that have been argued to blend linguistic and non-linguistic components, although it is unclear what these components are. To describe object handling, signers produce handshapes that represent how the hands shape for handling, but it has not yet been fully established whether the continuous object size is described by discrete handshapes in British Sign Language (BSL). The thesis examines whether experience with sign language influences perception and comprehension of BSL handling handshapes. In the first study, categorical perception (CP), using the identification and ABX discrimination tasks, is examined for handling handshapes (HHs) in BSL. The experiments reveal that adult deaf BSL signers and hearing non-signers perceive continuous HHs categorically while remaining perceptive to gradient aperture changes. Deaf BSL signers were more accurate than hearing non-signers when discriminating between handshape stimuli; this is likely due to visual language experience. However, reaction times showed no processing advantage suggesting that categorisation of BSL HHs has a general, visual-perceptual rather than linguistic basis. The second study examines whether deaf BSL signers compared with hearing non-signers express and interpret gradient sizes of manipulated objects categorically in discourse. Handling of objects gradiently increasing in size was recorded in BSL narratives, in English narratives via co-speech gesture and pantomime; recordings were shown to another group of judges who matched handling productions with the objects. All participants reliably associated smaller objects with smaller apertures and larger objects with larger apertures; however, in BSL and co-speech gesture, handshapes were not completely interpreted as gradient variations in comparison with pantomime. When gestures become more strategic or unusual, e.g. pantomime, speakers introduce finer-grained encoding of object sizes. The discontinuous patterns suggest that HHs have underlying representations outside of the linguistic realm; their categorisation arises from visual-perceptual experience that is embodied through interaction with real life entities. In discourse, handling constructions are partly conventionalised and may become decomposable in BSL overtime but it is suggested here that general cognitive and perceptual factors contribute to the conventionalisation, rather than purely linguistic. Further, the findings from both experiments lend support to the argument that HH category structure is graded. Whether HHs are fully componential and linguistic in DCs in sign languages still remains an open question. This thesis contributes to debates about the relationship between visual perception and language processing and the complex interface between language and gesture and highlights the nature of language as a multimodal phenomenon.

This dissertation was supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), grant 119630.

Contact: zsevcikova(at)

Earis, Helen. 2008. Point of View in Narrative Discourse: A Comparison of British Sign Language and Spoken English. Doctoral dissertation, University College London. [Earis_2008.pdf: 10.3MB]

Expressing the point of view of a character and marking changes in point of view (POV) are key aspects of narrative discourse. The concept of POV has been discussed in the literature in various contexts, including deixis, logophoricity and subjectivity. A variety of linguistic and non-linguistic devices are used to indicate a particular POV, including nominal and pronominal reference, and facial expressions and intonation. Spoken languages can mark changes in POV using strategies such as direct and indirect discourse, the former coupled with optional paralinguistic cues such as intonation, whereas signed languages can mark changes in POV in a unique way using referential shift. Referential shift is a common device in sign language narrative discourse, where the signer ‘becomes’ a referent by taking on one or more attributes of that referent, such as facial expression and/or body position (Loew, 1984). Within a referential shift construction, verbs and pronouns which are marked for first person refer to the referent being portrayed rather than the signer.

This study examines how point of view is marked in three fables, each told by native users of British Sign Language (BSL) and native speakers of English, and explores how the strategies used by signers and speakers can be explained by theories of conceptual spaces, such as that suggested by Liddell (2003) for signed languages and Ehlich (1979, 1985) for spoken languages.

This dissertation was supported by a doctoral grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Contact: helen.earis(at)