American Sign Language has a very long history. It, like many other languages, has undergone many transformations throughout its history. It is thought that American Sign Language stems from the first known sign language system, which was discovered in France during the mid-18th century. This system, known as Old French Sign Language, was a language created by deaf individuals in France.
Sign Language in France
Abbe de l'Epee, a cleric in Paris, was a large contributor to the spread of sign language. While visiting the home of a local parishioner he saw two young girls signing to each other. He was amazed by what he saw and realized that sign language would be an excellent way to educate deaf children. In 1771, l'Epee founded the first free educational institution for deaf people in France.
When l'Epee started the school, he started modifying the Old French Sign Language. He transformed it from a system of communicating ideas to a system of communicating the exact words, like a spoken language. His form of sign language became known as Old Signed French.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
The largest influence on the development of sign language in America was Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a congregational minister. Gallaudet had a neighbor whose daughter was deaf and he was very interested in helping her find a way to communicate. In 1816, Gallaudet decided to travel to Europe, where many schools for the deaf had been founded by graduates of l'Epee's school. While in Europe he met Laurent Clerc, a recent deaf graduate. Clerc taught Gallaudet about deaf education methods and sign language. Gallaudet convinced Clerc to return with him to America to help set up America's first school for the deaf.
Start of ASL
Together, Gallaudet and Clerc transformed the Old French Sign Language into a sign language that American students would better understand. This system of sign language, much like l'Epee's, had a system of grammar and signs to represent every word. Today this is known as Old Signed English.
In 1817, Gallaudet founded the nation's first school for the deaf. It was called American Asylum and was located in Hartford, Connecticut. Clerc was the first sign language teacher in America. Though the students used Gallaudet's form of sign language, him and Clerc also noticed that they used another form of sign language outside of the classroom. Gallaudet realized that this was there "natural language," and it was free of all grammar and shortened sentences down to key phrases. This "natural language" later became known as American Sign Language.[Home] [History] [Etiquette] [Facial Expressions] [Letters] [Phrases] [Citations]