A Short History of ASL


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Source: http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/9...HistoryASL.html

[Excerpt from Sherman Wilcox & Phyllis Wilcox, Learning to See: American Sign Language as a Second Language. In press, Gallaudet University Press.]

A Short History of ASL

American Sign Language (ASL) is the visual/gestural language which is the primary means of communication of deaf people in America and parts of Canada. Current estimates are that between 100,000 and 500,000 people use ASL (Padden, 1987). This includes native signers who have learned ASL as their first language from deaf parents, hearing children of deaf parents who also learned ASL as their native language, and fluent signers who have learned ASL from deaf people (Padden, 1987).

ASL in America

The history of ASL is long and rich. Much of its early development, however, remains poorly documented. One reason for this is that, like spoken languages, the early forms of signed languages are not preserved. While we can establish the time and circumstances under which education and thus formal instruction in English and various forms of signing, were brought to deaf people in the United States, we have little idea about the structure of the language which deaf people used prior to this. In spite of the paucity of information about earlier forms of signed language, we should not doubt that deaf people did communicate with each other in a natural signed language. Even before hearing people began to take an interest in their education, we can be sure that deaf people used a signed language.

We have two sources of evidence that deaf people used a natural signed language before hearing people intervened. One is the unique situation which developed on Martha's Vineyard in the late 17th century (Groce, 1985). Martha's Vineyard is an island five miles off the southeastern shore of Massachusetts. From 1690 to the mid-twentieth century, a high rate of genetic deafness appeared in the island population. Where the normal incidence rate for deafness in the population in nineteenth century America was approximately 1 out of every 5700 people, the incidence on Martha's Vineyard was 1 out of every 155. In some areas of the island the ratios were even higher; in one town, for example, 1 in every 25 people was born deaf, and in a certain neighborhood the ratio was as high as one in four.

Martha's Vineyard was an excellent example of a strong and flourishing deaf community. What makes it especially interesting is that there is evidence of an indigenous signed language being used on the island. The first deaf islander, who arrived with his wife and family in 1692, was fluent in some type of signed language. Many of the families which inhabited the island moved there from the Boston area; before this, they had immigrated from a region in England known as the Weald in the county of Kent. Almost all of the deaf inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard could trace their ancestry back to this small, isolated area in England.

As the deaf community on Martha's Vineyard flourished, so did the language. We can only surmise that this local signed language was based on a regional variety of British sign language. Soon, it spread in use to the entire island so that almost every individual, deaf and hearing, was able to use the Vineyard sign language. The impact on deaf people, according to Groce, must have been tremendous. With much of hearing population of the island bilingual in spoken English and Vineyard sign language, deafness was not viewed as a handicap. Deaf people were full participants in all aspects of island society (Groce, 1985).

Vineyard sign language, while an important phenomenon in the history of the deaf community and Deaf culture in America, played a relatively minor role in the historical development of American Sign Language. For that story, we must turn to the other source of evidence that deaf people had their own natural signed languages before hearing people became involved in their lives: the French Enlightenment (Lane, 1984).

Early Recognition and Acceptance of Signed Language

In 1779 a deaf Parisian bookbinder, Pierre Desloges, wrote a book, Observations of a Deaf-Mute, describing the signed language used by deaf Parisians. Desloges felt compelled to write his book, he said, because at the time a certain AbbÈ Deschamps was proclaiming that signed languages could not be considered languages and thus were of no use in the education of young deaf children. Learning of this, Desloges felt he must speak on behalf of the natural signed language of French deaf people. "Like a Frenchman who sees his language belittled by a German who only knows a few French words, I thought I was obliged to defend my language against the false charges of this author" (Moody, 1987:301).

The situation that Desloges described should not surprise us. Deaf people in France did indeed have a natural signed language, we will call it Old French Sign Language (OFSL), which they used to discuss all type of matters - politics, work, religion, family, and so forth. This language was passed down from deaf person to deaf person, much as any language which is not popularly accepted in educational institutions is transmitted to younger generations of speakers. Describing the typical deaf youth in 18th century France, Desloges wrote that "He meets deaf-mutes more knowledgeable than himself, he learns to combine and perfect his signs he quickly acquires, in interactions with his comrades, the so 'difficult' - so they say! - art of expressing and painting one's thoughts, even the most abstract, by means of natural signs and with as much order and precision as if he knew all the rules of grammar" (Moody, 1985:301). Clearly, Desloges is describing what any second language teacher would call syntax (order) and pronunciation (precision).

It was a young cleric in Paris, the AbbÈ de l'EpÈe, who first recognized that signed language could be used to educate deaf children. Visiting the home of a local parishioner, l'EpÈe noticed two young deaf daughters signing to each other. We can assume that, as Desloges wrote, these sisters were using OFSL and were on their way to becoming enculturated into Deaf French society.

The Abbe de l'EpÈe was moved by what he saw. He learned from the girls' mother that the only education they were receiving was private tutoring by means of pictures. From this inauspicious beginning, l'EpÈe went on to found the first free educational institution for deaf people in France in 1771.

While l'EpÈe did realize that signed language could be used to educate deaf children, he apparently did not realize that OFSL was a fully developed, natural language. Instead, he immediately set about modifying the signed language that his pupils taught him. He devised signs to represent all the verb endings, articles prepositions, and auxiliary verbs which are present in spoken French.
Thus, for example, the word "believe" was analyzed as the sum of "know" plus "feel" plus "say" plus "not see" and it was signed by executing the corresponding four signs and that for "verb" (Lane, 1980:122).

These historical developments in the evolution of signed language in France are quite significant. We see them repeated in principle again in 19th and 20th century American deaf education. The language of the French deaf community, Old French Sign Language, was a natural signed language which functioned admirably in all aspects of community life. Educators, with the most benevolent of intentions, saw OFSL as lacking in grammar. Of course, OFSL did not lack grammar; it merely had a different grammar than French - because OFSL and French were two different languages. In an effort to bolster what was seen as inadequacies in the language, educators such as l'EpÈe and others modified it to make it look more like a signed form of French - we could call it "Old Signed French." It was this heavily modified and slightly invented language that was taught to young deaf French children. Presumably, then, there were two languages in the Paris school: the artificial system that l'EpÈe invented (what we are calling Old Signed French) used in the classroom; and OFSL, used by deaf children and adults in their informal interactions.

The French Connection - Gallaudet and Clerc

France is important not only because it provides us with evidence natural signed languages existed, but also because the development which took place in France had a direct bearing on the development of ASL in this country. By the early 19th century, when the Paris school had been taken over by l'EpÈe's successor, Sicard, former teachers and students from the Paris school had gone on to establish several schools in France. Teachers and students from the Paris school made regular tours across Europe demonstrating their methods. In 1816, a young Protestant minister and recent graduate of Yale, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, became interested in educating deaf children. Wanting to learn all that he could about teaching methods, he undertook a trip to Europe.

Gallaudet first travelled to England, where the predominant approach in deaf education was the oral method, an approach which emphasized the development of speech and did not allow deaf children to use any type of signed language. While in London, Gallaudet met a group of teachers and students, including Sicard and Laurent Clerc, a brilliant young deaf man and recent graduate of the Paris school. Gallaudet travelled to Paris with them and studied deaf education methods and signed language with Clerc.

Eventually, Gallaudet convinced Clerc to return to America with him to establish the first school for the deaf, the American Asylum at Hartford, Connecticut. On the voyage from France to America, Clerc taught Gallaudet the signed language that was used at the Paris school and Gallaudet taught Clerc English. Together, they adapted this signed language to meet what they perceived to be the needs of deaf children in America.

We have evidence that Clerc was fluent not only in OFSL and Old Signed French, but also was highly literate in French. It is likely that what Clerc taught Gallaudet was actually the modified system of signs that had been developed to teach deaf children French - old Signed French. The modifications they made were to adapt it to the grammar of English: signs were invented for English verb endings, articles, prepositions, etc. Thus, what Gallaudet and Clerc brought to American deaf education was an early form of "Signed English" based on the lexical forms of Old Signed French, which was itself based on OFSL.

When they arrived in America, Gallaudet and Clerc began using their signed language in the classroom. In writings of the time, this system of signing was called "methodical signs." It wasn't long before the teachers began to note that while the students used methodical signs - what we are calling Old Signed English - in the classroom, they used another type of signed language in their interactions with each other. Gallaudet (1819, quoted in Lane, 1980:126) wrote:

A successful teacher of the deaf and dumb should be thoroughly acquainted both with their own peculiar mode of expressing their ideas by signs and also with that of expressing the same ideas by those methodical signs which in their arrangement correspond to the structure of written language. For the natural language of this singular class of beings has its appropriate style and structure. They use it in their unrestrained communication with each other, [it is marked by] great abruptness, ellipses, and inversion of expression. To take a familiar example "You must not eat that fruit, it will make you feel unwell" In [the deaf's] own language of signs, literally translated, it would be thus, "Fruit that you eat, you unwell, you eat no."

Gallaudet's recognition that the deaf had their own "natural language" was to be commended; however, it seems that, like l'EpÈe, he too failed to fully understand that this language was an independent, grammatical language. Gallaudet encouraged teachers to respect and learn this way of communicating, but he still insisted on comparing its structure to English and then noting that it is marked by ellipsis (leaving out words) and inversion of expression (presumably, the fact that this language did not follow English word order). We may speculate that if Gallaudet were to comment on Russian, he also would have noted that it is marked by ellipsis because it does not have articles. If he were to comment on Latin, he would have claimed that it too is marked by inversion of expression because of its more free word order than English.

This "natural signing" is Old American Sign Language. We may never know whether there was a commonly accepted variety or a high degree of local variation. What is clear is that the early methodical signs with their heritage in Old French Sign Language began to mix with the indigenous language which was already being used by deaf people in America. The result is what we know today as ASL.

In the century and three-quarters since these two languages first came into contact there has been much development. Both went through a period around the turn of the twentieth century when many people feared that the languages might be suppressed by the predominant oral method to the point where they would die out. In a particularly moving speech recorded on silent film in 1913, George W. Veditz, president of the National Association of the Deaf, made an emotional plea for all Deaf people to cherish and preserve their beloved signed languages as "the noblest gift God has given to the Deaf."

Today, linguists estimate that there may be as much as 58 percent cognates for a sample of 872 modern ASL and FSL words (Lane, 1987:55). Modern British Sign Language and ASL, on the other hand, are almost mutually incomprehensible.


Related Website:

2) Deaf Culture: Culture, History, and Importance http://www.odc.state.or.us/tadoc/deaf7.htm

More Websites On the History of American Sign Language:

3) Brief History of ASL http://f99.middlebury.edu/RU232A/STUDENTS/...her/history.htm

4) History of ASL http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/~d1600/asl.html

5) History Of Sign Language http://home.att.net/~silentword/history.htm

6) History of Sign Language http://www.westislandlife.com/asl/history.htm

7) When Did ASL Begin? http://www.signlanguage.org/faq.htm


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I found it very interesting that ASL had some roots in France - having studied French and ASL, it has always struck me that ASL grammar is much more like that of the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese) than it is like the grammar of the Germanic languages (English, German, Freise, Dutch, etc.)


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500,000 ASL users???? That has me baffled because when you add up all the Deaf schools in all 50 states plus Canadian Deaf schools then there are the Deaf social nightclubs then there are the Deaf persons with a hearing family like me then there are the ASL Interpreters. I would have to say somewhere close to 5 to maybe 7 million ASL users even at that time in 1987. It all adds up quickly. I am not sure how that author got 500,000 ASL users ? That is mysterifying to me 500,000 ASL users. That can't be ..... :ugh2:


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Heath - 7 Million ASL users? What are you smoking?

Try Galludet University's site for a bit mor accurate information.

"Across all age groups, approximately 600,000 people in the United States (0.22% of the population, or 2.2 per 1,000) are "deaf;" more than half are over 65 years of age. About 6,000,000 people (2.2%) report having "a lot of trouble" hearing with, again, more than half over 65 years of age. Over 28,000,000 people (10%) report having "a little trouble" hearing with just less than a third over 65 years of age, but more than half over 45 years of age. Altogether, more than 35,000,000 people (13%) report some degree of hearing trouble. Again, we emphasize that these estimates are based upon self-reported (or informant-reported) hearing trouble and not on independent audiometric measurements."

Lets say ALL the deaf and 1/100th of the hoh people use ASL. That comes to 600,000 + 28,000 + 35,000 = 663,000 in the US. Let's say for each deaf/hoh ASL user there are two hearing ASL users (yeah, right, its more like 10 deaf to 1 hearing ASL user) - that's 663,000 X 3 = 1,989,000 and let's say Canada has exactly the same number (though thier population is much lower than US and much of the country speaks French, not English, so ASL would be useless) That's still only = 3,978,000 which is shy of 4 million. Cripes - you need to go back and take some math classes.

How many people are "Deaf" and how many use ASL?

For the last several years, many writers have distinguished between those who are deaf and those who are "Deaf." The capitalization indicates sociolinguistic affiliation in addition to audiological distinction. None of the above federal survey activity inquires about special language use or social identification among those who are deaf (or hard of hearing). That is, there are no questions about American Sign Language (ASL) or any other signed language use on federal surveys. The only study that helps to answer this question was done over 30 years ago (before IDEA, ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, etc.). Based upon this old survey (part of a project known as the National Census of the Deaf Population [NCDP]), we first estimated there may have been 500,000 persons who signed at home in 1972 (about 0.24% of the population), only slightly over half of whom were deaf (280,000 or 0.14% of the population). In other words, in 1972, a little more than 1 of every 1,000 people in the United States was a deaf person who reported s/he was a "good" signer.

However, if we were to take a more liberal view of who would have counted as an ASL user among those responding to the NCDP then, of course, our numerical estimates would be higher. That is, including those NCDP respondents who identified themselves as “fair” or “poor” signers results in an estimated 642,000 persons who signed at home in 1972, more than half of whom were deaf (375,000 or 0.19% of the population). These and other estimates are discussed at greater length elsewhere:

Mitchell, Ross E., Travas A. Young, Bellamie Bachleda, and Michael A. Karchmer. 2006, in press. "How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating." Sign Language Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3.

There is really no way to know if the proportion of deaf signers in 1972 has stayed close to the same over the last few decades. Certainly, the medical, legal, social, economic, and educational circumstances for Americans who are deaf have changed significantly since the NCDP. Nonetheless, if the proportion of deaf signers has remained roughly the same, then they would continue to number in the hundreds of thousands today (360,000 to 517,000). Please keep in mind that this final estimate is just that, a
n estimate (and a very rough one at that), and is not based on any new data.
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