Did you know that American Sign Language is not related to English?

On the occasion of Deaf Awareness Week, we wanted to talk about the language of the deaf community, American Sign Language (ASL). Contrary to public perception, ASL is not related to English. ASL, a manual language that relies on movement rather than sound to denote meaning, actually grew out of French Sign Language in the early 1800s. The picture at left depicts finger spelling which uses hand motions to spell words in English but is not part of ASL.

Though deaf people and communities have been communicating in sign languages for a long time, ASL was formally born at the American School for the Deaf in 1817. Inspired by his neighbor’s deaf child, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet traveled to France to learn how to educate deaf children. At the Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris, he studied successful methods teaching sign language to children with Abbe Sicard. However, Gallaudet was not able to complete his studies before he had to return to the United States, and he asked that Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher at the Institution, come back to the States with him. Clerc agreed, and the two men went on to found the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut. Because of Clerc’s French background, ASL was heavily influenced by French sign language, as well as by the sign languages that were being used in America at the time, particularly that of the large deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard. Just as British English changed as it came to the United States, so did French Sign Language adapt to its new environment. (British sign language is very different than ASL.) ASL has continued to evolve since its inception. For example, the vocabulary has expanded to include new words like Internet and video blog.

Like any spoken language, ASL has a unique sentence structure and symbols for different words and ideas. ASL is not like Charades, a simple pantomime of meaning. Many signs are impossible for a non-ASL user to understand, just as a spoken language sounds meaningless to someone who does not speak it. The central features of ASL are hand shape, palm orientation, hand movement, and hand location, in addition to gestural features like facial expression and posture. Emphasis can be added to by changing the facial expression, such as raising your eyebrows or pursing your lips. In the 1960s, linguist William Stokoe, a professor at Gallaudet University, proved that ASL was its own independent language because it had its own syntax, grammar, and morphology, as spoken languages do. Stokoe’s original paper on the linguistics of American Sign Language is available online here. His two influential books, Sign Language Structure and A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, changed public opinion about ASL. Stokoe also created the first written transcription system for ASL, called Stokoe notation, which is made of Latin letters and numerals as well as glyphs denoting hand movements. Today it is not widely used except by linguists.

Do you use ASL? Have you ever wondered about how the language works?