SignWriting in Belgium
Flemish Sign Language Dictionary

A few years ago the project The Deaf community in Flanders: evaluation, sensitisation and standardization of Flemish Sign Language was set up. It formed part of the PBO (Programma Beleidsgericht Onderzoek — Programme Policy-oriented Research) of the Ministry of the Flemish Community (98/20/129). On the basis of the lexicographic part of this research project a sign language dictionary Dutch-Flemish Sign Language was created in book form. It is about to be published with Fevlado-Diversus. Moreover, the project Sociolinguistic Research of Flemish Sign Language, carried out at Ghent University and financed by the BOF (Bijzonder Onderzoeksfonds — Special Research Fund) (B/00056 — BOF/2-4/BOF2002), made it possible to create a more elaborate, electronic version of this dictionary. The website you are now visiting is of high scholarly and innovative value, but also meets several other needs. Both projects set out to develop a tool — being a sign language dictionary in both book and electronic form ? to support the education of the lexicon of Flemish Sign Language. This goal is now partly achieved.

The linguistic part of the research took place at Ghent University, in cooperation with the Department of Germanic Languages — CLIN (Centrum voor Linguïstiek — Centre for Linguistics) of the Free University of Brussels. It was conducted by supervisor Prof. dr. M. Van Herreweghe, English Department — Ghent University and co-supervisor Prof. dr. M. Vermeerbergen, Department of Germanic Languages CLIN, Free University of Brussels.

The first part of the research was carried out by Kristof De Weerdt and Eline Vanhecke, who started working on it in October 1999. In June 2003 Katrien Van Mulders took Eline's place. The development of the dictionary required the cooperation of a Deaf native signer and a hearing Dutch-speaking linguist, since native speakers/users of both languages are necessary when creating a translating dictionary.

The electronic version of the dictionary was developed by Steven Aerts and Bart Braem, who study computer sciences at the University of Antwerp. They were supervised by Prof. Jan Paredaens, Philippe Michiels, Nele Dexters and Jan Adriaenssens.

Until now Flanders had no dictionary of Flemish Sign Language, not in book form, nor on the internet. From various angles, however, there was a serious need of this tool. Teachers in the Flemish deaf schools cannot consult any dictionary when they do not know how to translate a certain Dutch word into Flemish Sign Language. Nor can the teachers who work at the sign language interpreter schools. The dictionary is also highly needed by various organisations (e.g. Fevlado (Federatie van Vlaamse Dovenorganisaties — Federation of Flemish Deaf Organisations)) that set up sign language courses throughout Flanders and several CVO's (Centrum voor Volwassenenonderwijs — Centre for Adult Education). It will in fact be interesting for all those who come in touch with Flemish Sign Language one way ore another.


To be able to elicit the signs that are currently included in the dictionary, lists of priority terms were developed. These lists contain the 'basic' Flemish Sign Language lexicon and include general themes, like family, health, colours, clothing, occupations, etc.

The signs were elicited from voluntary informants, who formed regional working parties. Composing five such regional working parties (one in each Flemish province) was necessary, since currently there exist five regional sign language variants in Flanders. These variants developed in the Flemish deaf schools and the regions in which they are used more or less correspond with the five Flemish provinces: Antwerp, East-Flanders, Flemish-Brabant, Limburg and West-Flanders. Each working party consisted of about 6 Deaf informants, who all met the following demands: between 20 and 50 years of age, having a thorough command of the studied sign language variant and using it as their first language, being an active member of the Flemish Deaf community and having received education in a deaf school. Both men and women were involved in the research.

In each group one native signer was allowed to look at the lists of priority terms and was in charge of eliciting the signs by means of eliciting material and of filming the conversations. The informants themselves did not get to see the Dutch words, in order to avoid possible interference from Dutch.

The research eventually resulted in about 90 hours of recorded language data (an average of 1 hour and a half per session, per region). This data was inventorised, transcribed and analysed linguistically. The signs were then filmed again to be able to include them in this dictionary.

The dictionary currently contains over 6000 signs from Flemish Sign Language, but is still being elaborated. The signs can be read through SignWriting and can be seen as moving pictures. SignWriting is an American transcription system invented by Valerie Sutton and the Deaf Action Committee (DAC). It allows for a very visual rendering of the signs, using symbols to represent the handshapes, movements, facial expressions, and body shifting. We chose to render the signs in SignWriting as well as moving pictures, because the former can easily and effectively be used in scientific research. It also serves various other goals: it can be used to teach new signs in the deaf schools, as well as for writing down texts in VGT.

You can search the electronic dictionary in two directions. You can look for the VGT translation of a Dutch word, as well as look up the Dutch counterpart of a Flemish sign. It is also possible to differentiate between the various regional variants. You can look for signs that are used solely in the West-Flemish variant, or in both the West-Flemish and Antwerp variant, etc... The region(s) where the sign is used, appear(s) on the right-hand side of the screen, next to the sign.

When developing this dictionary we intended to render the basic Flemish Sign Language lexicon as accurately and completely as possible. We did not aim at choosing the best suitable sign for each Dutch term, but instead wanted to include all existing sign language variants that are currently used in Flanders. We took into account all lexical and regional variation that was recorded during the collection of the data.

However, due to the relatively small number of informants (about 6 per province) and the fact that we are dealing with a random indication of Flemish Sign Language, you have to take into account that it is simply impossible to record all existing signs. It is possible that you see Flemish signers use signs that are not included here. They are by no means worse than or inferior to the signs that can be found in the dictionary. But you cannot expect the informants to know all signs used in their region or to have produced/remembered all of them during the meetings. This is, after all, a first basic dictionary. Further research also remains necessary to expose the differences between the various variants (concerning register, age, context, gender, ...). Nevertheless, we assume this dictionary to contain the basic Flemish Sign Language lexicon. Moreover, thanks to this electronic version it is possible to constantly add newly recorded signs. The included lexicon will therefore continuously be elaborated and — in time — become more complete.

Signs for occupations

In this dictionary the Dutch word for an occupation (e.g. carpenter, cashier, ...) is always accompanied by the sign used to refer to that occupation. Sometimes that sign is followed or - to a lesser extent - preceded by the sign PERSON, thus creating a compound sign. However, in day-to-day conversation these signs - both with and without PERSON - are hardly ever used. Instead Flemish signers produce something like 'WORKS IN A BANK' for BANKER or 'WORKS IN A SHOP' for CASHIER. This construction can of course not be used for every occupation (e.g. hairdresser or baker), but it is used quite frequently. Our informants' sign language use was probably influenced by the situation (presence of a camera, eliciting material, ?) when the occupation signs were elicited, but this is impossible to avoid. To make a difference between for example a male and a female police officer (in Dutch AGENT and AGENTE respectively), Flemish signers will add MAN or WOMAN to the sign POLICE OFFICER. This happens with a lot of occupations, e.g. nurse (in Dutch verpleger vs. verpleegster) doctor (in Dutch dokter vs. dokteres), ...

Signs for animals

Dutch — like many other languages — has specific terms to denote the female, male and young of a certain animal species (e.g.: sheep ('schaap'): ram ('ram'), ewe ('ooi'), lamb ('lam'); cattle ('rund'): bull ('stier'), cow ('koe'), calf ('kalf')). Flemish Sign Language also has specific signs for these animals, but they are hardly ever used. Usually the reference is made as follows: SHEEP + MAN, SHEEP + WOMAN, SHEEP + SMALL.

Katrien Van Mulders

Universiteit Gent
October 2004



Katrien Van Mulders


Prof. dr. Mieke Van Herreweghe

English Department
Ghent University
Rozier 44, 9000 Ghent, Belgium
tel. +32 - 9 - 264 37 92
fax +32 - 9 - 264 41 79

SignWriting in Belgium
Flemish Sign Language Dictionary