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Deaf History - History of Sign Language

How a language of gestures came to be


Updated March 30, 2011

American Sign Language has been around for a long time. But who invented it or or how did it come to be?

ASL's European Origins

What we call American Sign Language actually has roots in Europe. It is also known that in the 18th century, the teacher of the deaf Abbe de l'Epee of France developed an early form of sign language that contributed to American Sign Language. The Abbe de l'Epee developed a system of manual French similar in concept to Signed Exact English.

France's Signing Community

However, there was already a signing French community before the Abbe de l'Epee. This was documented by the deaf author Pierre Desloges. Desloges wrote in his 1779 book Observations of a Deaf-Mute that de l'Eppee had learned French sign language from deaf people in France. It appears that for years, the manual system and the "true" system of signing co-existed, with the manual probably being used in the classroom and the "true" system outside of the classroom.

Martha's Vineyard's Signing

Nora Ellen Groce's book, "Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language," traces the origin of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), an early sign language used on the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, where hereditary deafness was common beginning in the 17th century. She traced MVSL back to County Kent in southern England. Groce found in "Samual Pepy's Diary" that sign language was used in the Kentish "weald" (woodland area). Vineyard residents called their sign "Chilmark Sign Language" after the village of Chilmark where there was a good sized deaf community.

MVSL may have had some influence on the development of American Sign Language when some deaf children from Martha's Vineyard began attending the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. In addition, as deaf children from around the country attended the school, they probably brought with them "homemade" signs. Over time, these signs probably combined with the other sign language used at the school (including manual English) and developed into what is known as ASL.

Sign Language History Resources

The journal Sign Language Studies from Gallaudet University Press has published articles about the history of sign language. For example, the article "The Study of Natural Sign Language in Eighteenth-Century France," was in Sign Language Studies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 2002.

Signing in Other Countries

Every country's sign language has a history. The history is often similar to that of ASL's development. For example, Nicaraguan sign language developed when Nicaragua's first school for the deaf was opened. Deaf Life magazine (No.6, December 1996) had a cover story on it.

What do you think will be the future of sign language? Do you think it will continue to gain popularity or level off? Submit your thoughts and Read Others' Comments on the Continued Popularity of Sign Language.

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Van Cleve, John V., ed. Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1987.

Groce, Nora E. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Marthas Vineyard. Harvard University Press, 1988.

Readers Respond: Learning Sign Language

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