The History of Sign Language

Sign languages have been around much longer than most people think. Did you know that they existed in ancient Greece? And even before recorded history? To give you some perspective on just how amazing and prolific sign language really is, let’s take a deep dive into the long and colorful history of how signs—and ASL in particular—came to be.

The Earliest Sign Languages

No one knows exactly when sign language first appeared, but many sources agree that using hands to communicate has been around just as long as spoken language. And these early signing systems were the direct result of humans needing a new way to interact. Researchers believe that hunters on the open plains used signs to communicate to each other from great distances. Because of the lack of visual obstruction in a plains environment, sign was the most obvious way to communicate without scaring off the animals they were hunting.

The ancient Great Plains Native Americans also developed a complex signing system. It’s unclear what exactly the system was for, but many different theories exist. A popular one is that sign made intertribal trade possible. To overcome language barriers, the natives developed a standardized system of hand gestures to negotiate with tribes that didn’t speak their language—including European expeditioners. Multiple accounts of Columbus landing in the Americas claim that the natives communicated with his crew through sign.

The Greek Philosophers

It’s impossible to know exactly when and where the first deaf person tried out sign, but we do know that the first written record of sign language came from Ancient Greece. In fifth century B.C., the philosopher Plato wrote the dialogue Cratylus. In it he recorded Socrates saying, “If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavor to signify our meaning by our hands, head, and other parts of the body?” Apparently ancient Greeks who couldn’t speak did indeed have a rudimentary sign language to go about their daily lives.

The Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were the first people in history to write about sign language and deaf members of their society.

Later Plato’s student Aristotle became the first person ever to record a claim about deaf people—and unfortunately it wasn’t a good one. He believed that being able to hear speech was the only way people could learn. So according to Aristotle it was completely impossible to educate deaf people. Even though there wasn’t a shred of factual evidence to support his claim, Aristotle’s theory caught hold and was widely believed for the next 2000 years throughout the world.

And the results weren’t pretty. During this era of history, deaf people were viewed as lesser humans who couldn’t legally hold property. They couldn’t get married because society was afraid that deafness was a hereditary trait that would be passed on to future generations. Deaf people were often denied citizenship and even religious rights. And though deafness was regarded as a shameful disability, any form of sign was ostracized and discouraged, making it nearly impossible for these people to communicate freely.

Scholars of this period genuinely believed that deaf people couldn’t learn, but some teachers still tried. In 685 A.D. the Archbishop of York, John Beverly, famously taught a deaf boy to speak. But instead of seeing this accomplishment as proof that Aristotle was wrong, thinkers of the era deemed this act as divine. The archbishop was later canonized for performing the miracle, but people still believed that the only way deafness could be “overcome” was to speak the same language as the general population.

Teachers in Italy and Spain

In the sixteenth century, philosophers and teachers finally started questioning Aristotle’s claim that people who couldn’t hear couldn’t be educated. An Italian physician and mathematician named Girolamo Cardano (also known as Gerolamo or Geronimo) was the first voice to challenge Aristotle’s long-standing assumption.

The first fingerspelling systems in history emerged in sixteenth century Spain and Italy.

Cardano claimed that hearing wasn’t necessary for a person to understand ideas and even started developing his own code of hand gestures. He believed that one could use written words matched with symbols of what they represented to communicate with deaf students. Although his code was never widely adopted, he did use his methods to teach his own deaf son. And Cardano’s theories greatly influenced other leaders and thinkers of the time.

Around the same time as Cardano (about 1570), a Spanish monk named Pedro Ponce de Leon started educating his own deaf students—the sons of Spanish nobles. Because they were deaf, these young men were ineligible to inherit property. Leon taught them to read, write, and speak so they could claim the family fortunes that rightly belonged to them. And his efforts were successful.

Both Cardano and Leon inspired another Spanish monk named Juan Pablo de Bonet to take the biggest step in early sign language history. After developing his own methods of educating deaf pupils, Bonet published the first book on sign language in 1620. In it he included his own manual alphabet of handshapes representing sounds. This was the first published system of fingerspelling in history.

Even though these early systems were designed to teach deaf people how to speak other languages, Bonet’s book was still a revolutionary landmark in the development of sign language as an officially recognized form of communication. His book sparked interest across Europe in educating deaf students, but it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the next groundbreaking achievement in sign language development took place.

The French Sign Language Revolution

Abbe Charles Michel de l’Eppe was a French Catholic priest who studied theology and law. After he was ordained, l’Eppe devoted his life to caring for the impoverished French, and it was during this service in the slums of Paris that he met two twin sisters—both deaf. Another cleric had been tutoring the girls but died very suddenly. L’Eppe stepped in as their new teacher, a decision that started his lifelong mission of serving and educating the deaf population of France.

By the 1700s, a standardized sign language—Old French Sign Language—already existed in Paris. L’Eppe added to this system at his school.

The French Deaf community already used a common sign language in Paris, one that had developed organically over centuries. L’Eppe added to this Old French Sign Language system by creating a series of hand signals to replace the sounds of the alphabet. As he taught the twins, l’Eppe uncovered a breakthrough in deaf education: that deaf people learn visually all the same things that other people learn by hearing. Deaf and mute people already had a language that was every bit as powerful and expressive as spoken French, and the key to educating them was training them to communicate with their hands instead of their voices.

In 1760 l’Eppe founded the first free public sign language school in the world, funded by his own inheritance. The school was called Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris (The Royal Institution of Deaf-Mutes). As the French signing system and l’Eppe’s methods of teaching continued to develop, deaf people from all over France flocked to his school. Even officials from other countries started to take notice. The emperor of Austria and the empress of Russia both sent teachers to learn l’Eppe’s teaching style, and his influence eventually led to the creation of twenty-one schools total in France and many other countries.

Of course l’Eppe wasn’t the only influential sign language teacher of this time period. In England Thomas Braidwood was establishing the Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb around the exact same time that l’Eppe’s school opened in France. Braidwood taught his pupils using a unique two-handed method of sign language, and he was pivotal in developing the same British Sign Language used today in the United Kingdom.

But not all the teachers of the time were accepting of sign. Samuel Heinicke started the first German school for the deaf in 1778, but unlike l’Eppe, Heinicke was a staunch oralist. He falsely believed that the primary function of education for deaf children should be to develop their spoken language skills so they could fully integrate into hearing society. This is the one area where l’Eppe’s influence stood out among the other European teachers.

L’Eppe truly was the first “manualist” teacher, the first leader of deaf education who realized that sign language was the way deaf people should be communicating, and not just as a vehicle to help them speak oral languages. Aside from perpetuating the importance of sign, l’Eppe’s unique background in theology and law also made him a valuable ally for deaf rights in both religion and the court room. He was one of the first people in history to publicly assert that deaf people deserved to be treated as fully functioning human beings with something meaningful to contribute to society, even if they spoke a different language. It’s little wonder that today l’Eppe is known as the “Father of the Deaf.”

Sign Blossoming in the New World

In 1620, the exact same year that Bonet was publishing the first book on sign language, the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This was the first of many waves of colonists sailing to the New World in search of a better life. Among the many immigrants that hopped on ships bound for America was a group of settlers originally from Kent county England. They arrived in Massachusetts in the 1690s, bringing with them unique genetics that cause hereditary deafness. The result was Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.

Martha’s Vineyard is an island off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, and it is a historically significant location for the development of sign. Thanks to the unique genetic makeup of the island’s progenitors, Martha’s Vineyard was home to the largest deaf population on the continent. These deaf islanders created one of the most highly developed signing systems in history, perhaps based on a language used in Kent. Everyone on Martha’s Vineyard knew the signs and used them regularly to communicate with friends, family, and neighbors. Because even hearing members of this community used sign language, Martha’s Vineyard was one of the few societies in the world where deaf and hearing individuals were fully integrated together in all social, civic, and religious activities in the mid-1700s.

Aside from the famous Martha’s Vineyard sign, other versions of sign language began popping up around America wherever deaf populations existed. By the nineteenth century, church census data reported that approximately 800 deaf children were living in the United States. But sign language was still far from standardized and not even close to being recognized as an official language. It wasn’t until decades later that American deaf education would take a large and decisive step forward.

The Great Gallaudet

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a Yale graduate and an ordained clergyman in Hartford, Connecticut. He dreamed of becoming a professional minister, but his path took a different turn in 1814 when he met nine-year-old Alice Cogswell.

Thomas H. Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf and the namesake of Gallaudet University.

She was the deaf daughter of Gallaudet’s neighbor Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell. Gallaudet befriended Alice when he saw that the other children weren’t playing with her, and he began teaching her the names of objects by drawing pictures and words in the dirt. Right from the beginning of their friendship, Gallaudet was amazed by Alice’s intelligence, personality, and enthusiasm to learn. He didn’t realize it at the time, but this relationship with this little girl was going to change Gallaudet’s life forever—and the lives of millions of future deaf Americans too.

Dr. Cogswell was delighted to see his daughter’s progress and convinced Gallaudet that he should learn more about educating deaf children. Perhaps even start a school. As a prominent member of Connecticut society, Dr. Cogswell used his connections to raise enough money to send Gallaudet to Europe to study established methods of deaf education. The funds were raised in just one afternoon, and soon Gallaudet was on a ship bound for England.

He hoped to be trained at one of the Braidwood schools for the deaf in England and Scotland, but the Braidwoods turned out to be far from welcoming. They weren’t in a hurry to give up their family sign and lip-reading methods without compensation. And Gallaudet wasn’t convinced their teaching methods were the best option for educating deaf children anyway.

A discouraged Gallaudet parted ways with the Braidwoods, but shortly thereafter he met Abbe Roch-Ambroise Curcurron Sicard, l’Eppe’s successor at the Paris school for the deaf. Sicard just happened to be visiting England during Gallaudet’s trip and was giving lectures on deaf education along with two of his deaf assistants, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc. When Gallaudet introduced himself and explained his vision of establishing a school for the deaf in America, Sicard gladly invited him back to Paris to learn the French method of deaf education.

Gallaudet liked what he saw in Paris. He studied French sign with great enthusiasm, but he was quickly running out of money and needed to return home. Unsure if he could really start an American school all on his own, Gallaudet convinced the young Laurent Clerc to return with him to Hartford so they could start the school together. During the long sea voyage across the Atlantic, Gallaudet taught Clerc English and Clerc taught Gallaudet how to sign. (Related Article: Celebrating 200 Years of American Sign Language)

Spreading Sign Across North America

With Dr. Cogswell’s help, Gallaudet and Clerc opened the first American public school for the deaf on April 15, 1817, in Hartford’s Bennett’s City Hotel. Gallaudet and Clerc’s first class had just nine students in it—Alice Cogswell among them—but soon their numbers grew.

In 1817, the American School for the Deaf opened at Hartford’s old Bennett’s City Hotel. Gallaudet and Clerc’s first class had nine students.

As the school’s reputation spread, young deaf students from across the country journeyed to Hartford to learn Clerc and Gallaudet’s unique mixture of signs. Eventually their signing developed into the American Sign Language (ASL) that the Deaf community uses today. By 1863, twenty-two deaf schools were in operation around the U.S., most founded and run by Clerc and Gallaudet’s students.

Gallaudet’s youngest son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, continued his father’s legacy in deaf education. After teaching at the Hartford school for a number of years, Edward Gallaudet was instrumental in establishing the first college for the deaf in 1864, the Columbia Institution for the Deaf at Washington, D.C. (later renamed Gallaudet College in 1893).

The Rise of the Oralists

Despite the momentum sign was gaining in America, there were still many that didn’t view this widespread acceptance of sign language teaching as a positive development. Like the oralists in Europe, many American leaders and teachers falsely thought that sign was holding back deaf students. They believed it only hampered their development and encouraged deaf people to be isolated from the rest of hearing society. For the oralists, the only way to truly teach deaf pupils was to require them to speak English and abandon sign altogether.

Alexander Graham Bell was the face of the oralism movement.

By 1867, major schools in America began using oral methods of teaching with no sign language at all. Misguided advocates like Alexander Graham Bell—the same Bell who invented the telephone—were convinced that oral education was the best and only way for deaf children to learn. More and more schools started teaching deaf students orally or trying out combination methods that still used sign language but mainly focused on lip-reading and learning speech.

This ongoing conflict between oral and manual education culminated in the infamous Milan Conference of 1880. Deaf educators from seven different countries all gathered in Milan, Italy, to make decisions about the future of deaf education. The majority of the delegates firmly believed that oral methods were superior to sign language. Edward Miner Gallaudet was among the minority who knew without a doubt that sign language was the primary mode of communication for deaf people and should be the primary means of teaching them. Sadly the oral delegates won the vote, and the Milan Conference decided that sign language would be banned from all schools.

This decision rocked the deaf education world. In the next ten years sign language drastically declined, and by 1920 nearly 80% of all deaf programs were using oral methods. In some classrooms the signing ban was enforced through cruel methods like tying deaf students’ hands behind their backs to force them to speak. Perhaps the most regrettable consequence of the Milan Conference was the decline of deaf instructors in deaf classrooms, which dropped from 40% to a mere 15%.

But despite the ban, sign language still lived on. Deaf people were still signing outside of school or under tables, and the language continued to grow, develop, and build relationships. On a more official level, America’s National Association of the Deaf was created in response to the Milan Conference. The association stood as a guardian of American Sign Language to make sure sign and Deaf culture would be protected and preserved for future generations. They fought relentlessly to restore sign language in the classroom, but it was nearly a century later before sign made a comeback.

The Truth in the Research

The restoration of sign language happened thanks to William Stokoe, a scholar and hearing professor at Gallaudet University. Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet to teach English to the students, but upon observing ASL up close, he made a shocking realization.

William Stokoe’s linguistic research directly led to the acceptance of ASL as an officially recognized language.

In this era, sign language was viewed as a cheap mimicry of spoken languages, a primitive and insufficient means of communication for those who couldn’t hear. But Stokoe’s linguistic background revealed so much more to him. As he observed ASL he noticed that it wasn’t mimicry at all. In fact it carried all the markers of a unique language with its own syntax and grammar. That meant sign language was a fully formed language just like any spoken one.

Stokoe went on to publish his findings in 1960 and developed the very first sign language dictionary. His work was received with great excitement in the linguistic community and eventually entered the deaf education community as well. Stokoe’s research became a springboard for widespread positive change in deaf classrooms as educators finally accepted sign language with open arms and recognized ASL as the official language for deaf Americans.

Eventually Congress issued the Babbidge Report in 1965, acknowledging the failings of oralism-only deaf education and finally recounting the decisions made at the Milan Conference. Now with an official stamp of approval, American Sign Language has spread freely nationwide and become an integral piece of educating deaf children.

Sign Language Today

Sign language is now recognized as the native communication and education method for Deaf people. No one knows exactly how many sign languages exist around the world today, but there are unique signing methods in just about every country on the globe.

Sign language is now recognized as the native communication and education method for Deaf people.

Many, many countries still do not have strong support for deaf education, and plenty still haven’t recognized sign as an official language. But there’s no doubt that sign has developed into a fully fledged and beautiful language of its own right that has connected deaf people all around the world and impacted the lives of individuals everywhere.

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