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History of American Sign Language
"Where Did ASL Come From?" by Bryan Eldredge, Utah Valley University
As the Deaf Community struggles to be understood, it must overthrow many
commonly held misconceptions. One of the most widespread, and consequently
hardest to overcome, is that "sign language" is an artificial
system developed to help deaf people understand English by another means,
much like Braille is to blind people. But American Sign Language (ASL)
is nothing of the sort. One of the best ways to understand ASL is to understand
The name American Sign Language implies a couple of things: that there
are other sign languages, and that the one used in the United States is
somehow indigenous to this country. Both of these implications are correct.
In fact ASL began to form in small ways not long after the first settlers
arrived in America. Some of those settlers carried genes for deafness
with them when they came. In addition to those born here, some of the
people who immigrated here were deaf. Many of them brought sign languages
native to their homelands, and many of those born here undoubtedly developed
what are known as home signs, a rudimentary set of signs which varied
widely from place to place and family to family.
some areas these sign languages or sign systems grew quite popular. Martha's
Vineyard, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, was an example
of such a place. Because the people on the island were quite isolated
and consequently often married close relatives, a gene for deafness affected
nearly one-fourth of the people on the island. As a result almost everyone
on the island signed. Community and church proceedings were conducted
in sign. Hearing people often used sign language when communicating between
themselves even when there were no deaf people present. Many of the older
people on the island still sign to this day, and many of them have trouble
remembering which of their old friends were deaf and which were hearing,
because everyone signed.
Gallaudet & Clerc
like that on Martha's Vineyard were certainly rare, but they did occur
on a smaller scale in many families and communities. But for most deaf
people in America, the land of opportunity held little for them until
1817. That is when a young minister named Thomas Gallaudet and his new
friend Laurent Clerc, forever changed the course of Deaf history.
short time before 1817, Gallaudet met a Dr. Mason Cogswell who had a young
daughter, Alice, who was deaf. Apparently, Gallaudet was quite fascinated
by the challenge of communicating with and educating Alice. Dr. Cogswell
eventually persuaded Gallaudet to travel to Europe, at the expense of
Cogswell and some other interested parties, to study the methods being
used there in educating deaf people. Gallaudet first traveled to England
to study the method used by the Braidwood family, an oral approach, but
he ran into trouble because the Braidwoods held their "methods"
as business secrets and were reluctant to share them.
a somewhat frustrated Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc, a Deaf Frenchman. Clerc
was traveling with a group from the National Royal Institution for the
Deaf in Paris, demonstrating their educational techniques using French
Sign Language. Gallaudet heard lectures given by Clerc and the others
through an interpreter and was impressed that he decided to travel back
to France with the group to study their techniques. [Clerc had gone to
school at the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets, which was the
first public school for the deaf in the world, founded by a priest named
Abbe De L'Epee, who became known as the "father of the deaf."]
money began to run low, and eventually word came that he would have to
come back to America. Before he left, Gallaudet convinced Clerc to accompany
him back to America. During the voyage to America, Clerc continued teaching
Gallaudet French Sign Language, and Gallaudet taught Clerc English. Once
back in America, these two men founded the first successful school for
the deaf in the United States. There had been other schools earlier, including
some efforts by a member of the Braidwood family, but none had succeeded.
This new school was established in 1817 in Hartford Connecticut.
The establishment of this school would have far reaching effects on the
future of Deaf America. Had the earlier attempts at establishing oralist
schools been successful, the Deaf community might have been very different.
The Hartford school was vital to the formation of what is now referred
to as Old ASL. This early form of ASL was a combination of the French
Sign Language brought over by Clerc and the many other sign systems used
by people who already lived here including the signs used on Martha's
Vineyard. When the first students came to Hartford and learned this early
form of ASL, they often took it back to their homes and taught it to other
deaf people, and eventually, many of these early graduates of the Hartford
school became teachers in other schools for the deaf around the country.
So it is clear that the Hartford school played a key role in standardizing
the language of the Deaf. Today Deaf people from one part of the country
can travel to almost any other part and find people who use the same language
(although ASL does vary somewhat from region to region just as English
has several differing dialects often within relatively small distances).
The changes away from the French Sign Language at the Hartford school
began to appear almost immediately, and the language continues to change
today, as do all other "living" languages. Approximately 60%
of present-day ASL can be traced to its French roots. That is not to say
that 60% of ASL is identical to LSF [Langues des Signes Francais (French
Sign Language)], but rather that the relationship can still be traced.
Even today, residential schools for the Deaf play a significant role in
the standardization of ASL and the continuation of its culture.
University in Washington D.C., the only liberal arts university for the
Deaf in the world, is something of a mecca for the Deaf and particularly
so since the "Deaf President Now" protests in 1988. During these
protests, seen by many people within the Deaf community as the revolution
which finally opened the door to Deaf civil rights, the students shut
down the campus for nearly a week. The school's Board of Trustees, which
was comprised mostly of hearing people, passed over two Deaf candidates
for university president and chose the only hearing one. Dr. Elizabeth
Zinser, the board's choice, had no previous experience with the Deaf community.
The protests captured global attention and eventually the students succeeded;
Dr. Zinser resigned and Dr. I. King Jordan was named as the first deaf
president in the school's 124-year history.
But the Deaf community has suffered in the hands of well-meaning hearing
people before, and sometimes misguided efforts at helping the deaf have
almost destroyed what has become the language and culture of Deaf Americans.
In 1880, the same year that the National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
was founded to bring deaf people together to fight for common causes,
in Milan, Italy the International Congress on Education of the Deaf voted
158 to 6 to recommend that oral methods of educating the deaf should be
promoted over signing. Ironically, of the 164 delegates to the conference,
only one was deaf. The hearing members of the American delegation voted
against the proposal. The one deaf participant, also an American, was
not allowed to vote.
The Milan conference, along with growing belief throughout Europe that
oralism was better than signing, created great concern to Deaf people
who saw their language and culture threatened with extinction. Around
the turn of the century, fears that ASL would be lost were so great that
the NAD established a special fund specifically for the purpose of making
films so that future generations could have something of their language
after its use had been stopped. Yet ASL did survive. There have been periods
when oralism has gained momentum and signing has always suffered in direct
proportion, but the will of the community members to preserve their language
and culture has prevented the demise once believed so inevitable. Deaf
people have always refused to give up their associations with other Deaf
people; whether through clubs, churches, or political organizations, ASL
always found a home, a place where the people who use it maintain the
right to do so.
|Understanding the origins of ASL should help people recognize that ASL
is not a simple support device, a crutch for people with "broken"
ears. It is a vivid, living, whole language which is limited only by the
user's ability to use it, or lack thereof. Ironically, it is the limitations
of the hearing people who have tried to learn ASL that has contributed a
great deal to the myth that ASL can express only concrete ideas. It is impossible
for people with limited abilities to ever unlock or comprehend the true
potential of any language.