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The History of American Sign Language

Updated on December 30, 2015

American sign language has its roots in France.

The American Plains Indian contributed substantially to developing our sign language used today.
The American Plains Indian contributed substantially to developing our sign language used today. | Source

Most people in the sixteenth century believed deaf meant less than average intelligence.

During the sixteenth century a physician out of northern Italy named Geronimo Cardano announced all deaf people had the capacity to communicate. This was flowed against the current thoughts and ideas of the time. He theorized building a form of conveying ideas and thoughts into conversation with one another form outside of verbal or written ways as we knew them. In a single thought this mean actually creating another language specifically for non hearing people.

Not only is this an enormous undertaking on all fronts, but the possibility for failure seemed far greater than success. Most people imagined deaf meant less than average intelligence in learning and understanding. Cardano was not under this misguided belief. Part of the push to get the ball rolling stemmed from Cardano's background. Personally history for the physician included being a great mathematician, biologist, physicist, philosopher, writer and even gambler during this time, Geronimo knew the intelligence and info was there, the obstacle was getting it out and understood.

Opposition to the idea

There was a large amount of opposition to the idea, Nonetheless Cardano took on the project. A starting point for this other form of language was necessary and an overview is a great place to begin. By imagining the ideal end result a person hopes to achieve, completing smaller sections and putting them all together works out well for countless folks. This was the skill set used in this case.

He was not alone in the ideas he held about the deaf and how important communication was and still is. He got a rudimentary form of exchanging and interaction going, but failed to hammer out the details needed to get to where we are today with sign language.

How to get it done

The starting point was rather simple. Make a language for these folks. This project was successfully accomplished using a combination of written symbols outside the known written alphabet of the time.

The structures or symbols had to be something not used in any form by other people. It is unique only to them with the same things symbolized as every letter in the common alphabet. Education was not as wide spread among the average populace as today. This meant building letters works out great, but what about the illiterate? There was an answer.

Not only were a form of letters to build words, but there were also symbols which shortened a word into one single gesture. Putting both of these together accomplished the end result. This was the creation of another language in all forms.He was able to do do this through a painstaking project which took years.

Support for the undertaking

The first book connected to this new form of interchange between deaf persons and hearing and non hearing people was published by Juan Pablo de Bonet in the year 1620. This was a form of support tangible and appreciated by those supporting Cardano. The language was there, but how to get it to the people who needed it? Not only did the non hearing need it, but also others who wanted to talk to them.

Juan Pablo hoped to explain the need for it as well as reinforce the idea there was an abundance of misguided ideas people of the time period held surrounding the deaf. The largest one was any person unable to hear was less intelligent than those who were able to hear and these same folks were incapable of learning. This also was believed to be true for anyone hard of hearing. He hoped to build support and understanding for sign language. These efforts helped spread the word.

Schools to teach

The first free school for the deaf was founded in 1755 by Abbe Charles Michael de L’Epee of Paris France. He developed a form of communicating between non hearing and hearing people via a series of gesticulations and hand movements. Although the majority was one signal for an entire word, some of the elements included finger spelling. Finger spelling was mapping out each letter of an entire word instead of a single motion to denote a single subject. The teachings built up and expanded the initial ideas of Cardano.

When establishing this free school two big obstacles were faced at the onset. One was getting teachers trained and equipped for the job. The other was the amount of kids coming to the school. The former was much greater than the latter.

Creating the sign language system

The Abbe was extremely creative in this particular contribution to the sign language system. He noticed a number of people in Paris falling into this segment of the population who were already "talking" with one another on a basic level.

He went to the non hearing populace doing it to discover the signs already being used. For the most part these were rudimentary, while others seemed a bit more complicated. It was a painstaking task, but for the most part a message was communicated and understood by use of animation or a unique sign. Hearing people living or spending any time around these folks also used and recognized the same motions.

The first step was recognizing and learning the signals or indicators being used by this group in Paris. It was very rudimentary. After learning the simple language already in place, he added personal creative touches. The first change was expanding it substantially. This included a signed version of the entire spoken language of French. The creation was a way to speak French without verbally saying a word. It was an expression of every word or term using some form of all ten fingers and both hands to have a conversation

These actions paved the way for the first standardized sign language for the deaf. This action helped the gap between the hearing and any person hearing impaired to be shortened. In countless cases it eliminated it entirely.

A deaf educator gets involved in the process

Amazingly it was during this same time another deaf educator entered the scene. His name was Samuel Heinicke. This teacher began to educate the first non hearing people in speech reading or what is more commonly known as lip reading. Along with lip reading he shared another manual method of communication.

Samuel Heinicke of Leipzig had the first public school for the deaf that received government recognition and paved the way for the first total communication for the deaf. Total communication meant not only was there a method of conveying thoughts and feelings via sign language there was also something to close another gap.The average hearing person does not know sign language. This is where lip reading comes into play.

This opened up the world of a deaf person even more. Lip reading took care of understanding what a hearing person was saying to someone who did not hear and something more. Two hearing people conversing with one another were able to be understood by a non hearing person.This enabled a total communication for anyone who did not hear.

Total communication encompasses all methods of contact available such as finger spelling, speech reading, verbal speaking, hearing aids and pictures. Written forms for interaction using the regular alphabet is also included as well. All this being said, the average deaf person must possess a higher intelligence than the average non hearing person. There is an massive amount of knowledge needed in order to interact with everyone.

An enormous contribution from the American Plains Indians

The American Plains Indians developed an extensive method of communication through signing. It was used more for inter-tribal communication instead of the need to converse with the hearing impaired or deaf. Living on the plains meant meeting and trading with a vast number of people who did not speak the Indian language. Being able to converse was a matter of life and death in some circumstances. Amazingly there are extensive similarities between the sign language developed by the American Plains Indians and the sign language we use today. The American Plains are thousands of miles away from France.

Sign language in America

Most of America’s gratitude for the sign language should be given to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet was a congregational minister who took an interest in a neighbor’s deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell. Traveling to Europe in 1815 for the purpose of studying methods of communication between deaf people enhanced the minister's understanding and appreciation for sign language. While traveling in Europe received and invite to study at the school for the deaf in Paris. This experience was life changing. He wanted to do something similar in America.

In 1817, Gallaudet founded America’s first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. He became the first deaf sign language teacher at the facility. Several states mimicked the idea built in Connecticut and opened sign language schools. New York established one in 1818 and was soon followed by Pennsylvania in 1820. More than 20 schools existed in the states by 1863.

More than the basic education

Higher learning is something every parent hopes the next generation achieves. Every parent dreams of a child graduating from college. With this in mind a school of higher learning was put in place for non hearing students. In 1864 the Gallaudet College was established in Washington DC. The college had all students major in Liberal Arts. To this day this is the only deaf college of Liberal Arts.

Today America has one of the most extensive and expressive sign languages of any country of the world. Although these roots began in the French sign language system, there have been personal modifications to the original signs to make a language identified as American sign language.

Did you know a baby is capable of learning how to sign? Amazon sells the complete kit. A book, how-to-DVD and quick reference guide. Teaching a baby sign langua

In conclusion

Looking at sign language it has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Whenever there is an image of the cave man there appears to be a rudimentary from of signing. Traders from different parts of the world who did not speak the same language must have used it in some way or form. How did Christopher Columbus speak to the people of the new world.

Although it took more than a few decades to get it finished, it is still changing and evolving to this day. The uniqueness of it is unable to compare to anything else. American sign language is slightly different from Universal sign language and who is able to imagine what the future holds.

Along with signs for the handicapped, some cities have signs for the deaf. This is typically used around a deaf school. Drivers are able to be extra careful to avoid accidents because of this type of warning.
Along with signs for the handicapped, some cities have signs for the deaf. This is typically used around a deaf school. Drivers are able to be extra careful to avoid accidents because of this type of warning.

Great for college admission

Colleges admit when searching through applications for incoming students sign language is accepted as a second language similar to French or Spanish.

Hollywood has created roles for the deaf and audiences love these shows

There are actors on mainstream TV and popular shows who are deaf or hard of hearing. Hollywood has even created more than a few shows where the majority of the cast is deaf. There popularity is a testament to how accepting and admired the actors are.

In some instances deaf characters have roles speaking or non speaking. The non speaking roles are simply signing. Amazingly the director has implemented tools which make it understandable to the average viewer. In some circumstances there are subtitles and other unique or innovative ideas.

There is a deaf cable channel. DeafTV is designed, created and administered by deaf or hard of hearing persons.


This is a great example of how far we have come. This is a restaurant staffed entirely with deaf waiters

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    • profile image

      Sueswan 6 years ago

      I enjoyed this article.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Excellent Hub, and voted up!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      I love to watch people sign - I think it is a very beautiful language. I took several sign language classes with the intention of becoming an interpreter for the deaf until I switched my major to journalism. Like any language you "use it or lose it" and I've forgotten much of it. Nicely written.

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 6 years ago from United States

      Great information on sign language. Thanks for providing it!

    • tlpoague profile image

      Tammy 6 years ago from USA

      This is an interesting look into the history of sign language. Thanks for sharing it.