Sign Language, American

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SIGN LANGUAGE, AMERICAN. American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual-gestural language used primarily by deaf residents of the United States and parts of Canada. It became a fully developed communication system only in the early nineteenth century, following contact between the American reformer Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and deaf Frenchman Laurent Clerc. In 1815, Gallaudet, an evangelical Protestant minister from Hartford, Connecticut, traveled to England and then to France to learn how to instruct deaf children. Gallaudet became acquainted with Clerc at the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris, where Clerc taught, and in 1816 invited him to return to the United States. The next year, Gallaudet, Clerc, and a group of philanthropists opened a school for deaf children in Hartford, today's American School for the Deaf. The American School became the incubator for ASL.

Clerc's influence on the new language was enormous. He taught sign language to the American School's first principal, Gallaudet, to the first generation of the school's teachers, and to several generations of deaf students. For decades, his finest pupils became the lead teachers at other deaf schools in the United States, employing the signing that Clerc taught them. Modern examination of the lexical similarity of ASL and Clerc's native French Sign Language suggests that the languages share more than 50 percent of their vocabularies, reinforcing the historical evidence of Clerc's role. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, critic Alexander Graham Bell charged that ASL was foreign, an import from France, and therefore fundamentally subversive of American culture and institutions.

Yet ASL's origins lie in both Europe and the United States. Clerc stated that he modified the sign language he brought from his homeland to fit American customs. School records indicate that many of the students who first attended the American School came from families with other deaf members; it is well known that in such situations deaf people typically create a shared system of gestures. These probably influenced ASL's early development, although the mechanism and the resultson ASL's lexicon, morphology, or syntax, for exampleare not understood.

Natural change through time has influenced ASL. Many signs initially were close visual representations of the physical world of actions and things. Early nineteenth century ASL practitioners claimed that its power lay in the language's obvious mimetic characteristics. Studies of late-twentieth-century ASL, however, indicated that its signs by then were not in the least transparent to naive observers. Modern linguistic studies suggest that, in general, signs become smaller, more symmetrical, and more centrally located as sign languages mature and as iconicity is sacrificed for ease of production and comprehension.

ASL also reflects the influence of English. Initialized signs, made with a handshape that represents a particular letter in an English word, are common in ASL. The hand-shape for the letter G thus is used in the formation of the sign for the color "green," and the handshape for the letter B is necessary to produce the signs for "blue," "brown," and "beer." Furthermore, modern ASL incorporates a number of signs derived from the modification of fingerspelled English words. The usual ASL sign meaning affirmation or agreement, for instance, is a contraction of three finger-spelled letters, Y-E-S, into a single movement from the Y handshape to the S handshape. Similarly, word order in ASL may be undergoing modification, losing its dominant subject-object-verb pattern for the common English subject-verb-object.

The relationship between ASL and English has been contentious and negotiated throughout the language's history, and the boundary between ASL and English in a signed form is neither agreed upon nor unchanging. Clerc brought from France not only the language of deaf Parisians but also "methodical signs." The Abbé Charles Michel de l'Epée, founder of the National Institute in Paris in the 1770s, invented the latter to modify French Sign Language to conform to the rules of written French. For example, Epée appended elaborate grammatical mark-ers to lexical terms borrowed from French Sign Language, and every word of spoken or written French had a direct equivalent in Epée's usage. Clerc learned methodical signs while a student at the Paris Institute. After arrival in the United States, he altered these to conform to English grammar. Clerc led the American School to use both English-like methodical signs and the "natural" or "colloquial" sign language of deaf people for instruction.

American educators debated the relative merits of methodical signs and ASL from the 1830s until after the Civil War. ASL proponents claimed that English-like signing taught students to create the forms of English without understanding. They noted that outside of the classroom deaf people used only natural sign language, as ASL was then called, for it conveyed meaning quickly, clearly, and easily. They believed that it should be allowed to remain separate and distinct from English. Others claimed that methodical signing's close relationship to English provided deaf children with greater access to written language. This argument eventually lost its urgency, however, as changing cultural attitudes condemned all signed communication.

Beginning in the 1870s, Alexander Graham Bell led a loose coalition of progressive educational reformers, nationalists, and eugenicists who attacked ASL and advocated the use of speech and speech reading in its place. They claimed that signing was primitive, associated with backward peoples; that its ease of use prevented deaf people from learning to speak; that it nurtured among deaf people a culture apart from the mainstream and thus threatened American cultural homogeneity; and that it encouraged deaf people to marry among themselves, possibly threatening the nation with the birth of more deaf children. Most hearing educators, hearing parents of deaf children, and school governing boards accepted these claims for decades. By the 1890s, schools were firing deaf teachers and banishing ASL from classrooms. Serious study of ASL, which had marked its early years, ceased.

Deaf Americans nevertheless kept ASL vibrant as the twentieth century began, passing it from pupil to pupil in school dormitories and playgrounds and from adult to adult in deaf clubs. Deaf leaders produced ASL dictionaries, and they filmed ASL masters to preserve classic forms for future generations. Various local deaf communities argued for ASL's reacceptance into schools. The educational failure of speech and speech reading, moreover, became increasingly obvious in the late twentieth century.

ASL's rehabilitation began about 1960 with the studies of William C. Stokoe and his colleagues at Gallaudet University. Stokoe showed that ASL, which was commonly used by his deaf students, was not a corrupt form of English but a language in its own right. Subsequent studies confirmed and developed Stokoe's insight and identified the qualities that distinguish true signed languages, like ASL, from other forms of visual communication, such as gesture or semaphore.

The American civil rights movement provided the broader context within which ASL achieved scholarly and cultural acceptance in the late twentieth century. Public policy was no longer openly hostile to ethnic and linguistic diversity, affording deaf people some success in their demand to use their preferred language in social and legal contexts. By the 1970s, some schools had begun experimenting with the introduction of signed forms of English in the classroom. The next step was the introduction of ASL itself as the language of instruction. The old argument about the educational advantages of ASL versus English-like signing reemerged.

Some of the same cultural shifts that assisted ASL in gaining recognition in the late twentieth century, however, suggested that its future as a means of everyday discourse was not assured in the twenty-first century. Educational structures that concentrated deaf people in separate residential schools were no longer in favor. Technical devices to improve hearing, called cochlear implants, had made progress, and medical discoveries raised the possibility of eliminating genetic causes of deafness. Together, these changes had the potential to weaken or destroy the American deaf community.


Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. The most important source for the history of ASL.

Lane, Harlan. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New York: Random House, 1984.

Padden, Carol, and Tom Humphries. Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. See for the linguistics of ASL and for ASL's place in American deaf culture.

Stedt, Joseph D., and Donald F. Moores. "Manual Codes on English and American Sign Language: Historical Perspectives and Current Realities." In Manual Communication: Implications for Educators. Edited by Harry Bornstein. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1990.

Van Cleve, John Vickrey, and Barry A. Crouch. A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989.

John Vickrey Van Cleve

See also Gallaudet University .