Sunday, August 30, 2009

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (or ASL, Ameslan) is the dominant sign language of the Deaf community in the United States, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, and in some regions of Mexico. Although the United Kingdom and the United States share English as a spoken and written language, British Sign Language (BSL) is quite different from ASL, and the two sign languages are not mutually intelligible.

ASL is also used (sometimes alongside indigenous sign languages) in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. Like other sign languages, its grammar and syntax are distinct from any spoken language in its area of influence. While there has been no reliable survey of the number of people who use ASL as their primary language, estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million in the United States alone

History of ASL

A sign language interpreter at a presentation

In the United States, as elsewhere in the world, hearing families with deaf children often employ ad-hoc home sign for simple communications. Today though, ASL classes are offered in many secondary and postsecondary schools. ASL is a language distinct from spoken English; it contains its own syntax and grammar and supports its own culture. The origin of modern ASL is ultimately tied to the confluence of many events and circumstances, including historical attempts at deaf education; the unique situation present on a small island in Massachusetts; the attempts of a father to enlist a local minister to help educate his deaf daughter; and in no small part the ingenuity and genius of people (in this case deaf people) for language itself.

Prior sign languages


The French had a natural sign language, which is often referred to as Old French Sign Language (OFSL). OFSL was the language of a large community of Deaf people living in Paris. This language was passed down from deaf person to deaf person, and may be the oldest sign language of Europe. The Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée was the first to acknowledge that signed language could be used to educate the deaf.

An oft-repeated Deaf folk tale explains Epee's role in the origin of LSF (and later, ASL): While visiting a parishioner, Épee met two Deaf daughters conversing with each other using OFSL. The mother explained that her daughters were being educated privately by means of pictures. Epee was inspired by these Deaf children and in 1771 established the first educational institution for the deaf.[1] He created a series of grammatical signs to represent French grammatical markers (called "methodical signs") and taught those to his students. At Epee's school, a large group of Deaf children lived together for the first time in France and it is this generation of native speakers which most likely developed OFSL into a full language. The combination of OFSL, methodical signs, and possibly other influences came together and evolved into French Sign Language, LSF.

United States

Little is known of sign languages in the United States before 1817. It is said that since there was little contact between communities in early America, home sign language was likely used most widely. However, a deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard in the late 17th century used a natural sign language. From 1690 to the mid-twentieth century there was a high rate of genetic deafness on Martha’s Vineyard caused by the founder effect. It afforded almost everyone the opportunity to have frequent contact with sign language. It was said that 1 out of 155 people on the island was deaf, compared with 1 out of 5700 people in the rest of America during that time. The ancestry of the deaf community could be linked to Weald, a small area in England.

Plains Indians

In 1688, 1740, 1805, and 1828 were reports that the Plains Indians developed a sign language to communicate between tribes of different languages. This sign language is believed to have developed in the lower Rio Grande prior to the Europeans settling and to have spread northward and become what is known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). There is no evidence to show that it influenced the development of American Sign Language. By 1885, PISL had an estimated 110,000 users of various tribal dialects, but today it has only a small fraction of that number.

Birth of American Sign Language and American School for the Deaf

In 1815 a Protestant minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, left his home in Hartford, Connecticut and moved to Amsterdam. Dr. Mason Cogswell asked Gallaudet to investigate methods of teaching his deaf daughter. While in England, Gallaudet hit a roadblock when directors of the Braidwood Schools, who taught the oral method, refused to share their methods of teaching. Nevertheless, while in London, Gallaudet met with Abbe Sicard, director of the Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris and two of his students, one of which was Laurent Clerc. Sicard invited Gallaudet to visit the school in Paris. He did not go immediately, but instead traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland where he again met the methods of Braidwoods. They again refused to teach him their methods. Gallaudet then traveled to Paris and learned the educational methods of the Royal Institution for the Deaf with sign language, a combination of Old French Sign Language and the signs developed by Abbė de l’Epėe. Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to return with him to Connecticut and become a teacher for the deaf. Gallaudet and Clerc opened up the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (now called American School for the Deaf) in April 1817. Deaf students were taught French signs and brought in signs of their own, such as those from Martha’s Vineyard. Thus, it was at this school that all these influences would intermingle and become what is now known as American Sign Language.

Growth and standardization

American Sign Language Convention of March 2008 in Austin, Texas

Interestingly, because of the early influence of the sign language of France upon the school, the vocabularies of ASL and modern French Sign Language are approximately 60% shared, whereas ASL and British Sign Language, for example, are almost completely dissimilar.

From its synthesis at this first public school for the deaf in North America, the language went on to grow. Many of the graduates of this school went on to found schools of their own in many other states, thus spreading the methods of Gallaudet and Clerc and serving to expand and standardize the language; as with most languages though, there are regional variations.

Oralism vs. Manualism

After being strongly established in the United States there was a bitter fight between those who supported oralism over manualism in the late 1800s. Many notable individuals of high standing contributed to this row, such as Alexander Graham Bell. The oralists won many battles and for a long time the use of sign was suppressed, socially and pedagogically. Many considered sign to not even be a language at all. This situation was changed by William Stokoe, a professor of English hired at Gallaudet University in 1955. He immediately became fascinated by ASL and began serious study of it. Eventually, through publication in linguistics journals of articles containing detailed linguistic analysis of ASL, he was able to convince the scientific mainstream that ASL was indeed a natural language on a par with any other.

A living language

The language continues to grow and change like any living language. In particular, ASL constantly adds new signs in an attempt to keep up with constantly changing technology.[citation needed] For example, there is now an ASL sign for INTERNET and a sign for Video blog (wherein both L hands touching at thumb tips rotate from palm down to palm forward).


A group of people signing.

ASL is a natural language as proved to the satisfaction of the linguistic community by William Stokoe, and contains phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics just like spoken languages. It is a manual language or visual language, meaning that the information is expressed not with combinations of sounds but with combinations of handshapes, palm orientations, movements of the hands, arms and body, location in relation to the body, and facial expressions. While spoken languages are produced by the vocal cords only, and can thus be easily written in linear patterns, ASL uses the hands, head and body, with constantly changing movements and orientations. Like other natural sign languages, it is "three dimensional" in this sense.[2][3] ASL is used natively and predominantly by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing of the United States and Canada.


Although it often seems as though the signs are meaningful of themselves, in fact they can be as arbitrary as words in spoken language. For example, a speaking child may often make the mistake of using the word "you" to refer to themselves, since others use that word to refer to him or her. Children who acquire the sign YOU (pointing at one's interlocutor) make similar mistakes – they will point at others to mean themselves, indicating that even something as seemingly explicit as pointing is an arbitrary sign in ASL, like words in a spoken language.

However, Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi have modified the common theory that signs can be self-explanatory by grouping signs into three categories:

  • Transparent: Non-signers can usually correctly guess the meaning
  • Translucent: Meaning makes sense to non-signers once it is explained
  • Opaque: Meaning cannot be guessed by non-signers

Klima and Bellugi used American Sign Language in formulating that classification. The theory that signs are self-explanatory can be conclusively disproved by the fact that non-signers cannot understand fluent, continuous sign language. The majority of signs are opaque.

Generally, signs that are "Transparent" are signs of objects or words that became popular after the basics of ASL were established. There are, of course, exceptions to this.


In ASL, fingerspelling is used primarily for proper nouns, for emphasis (for example, fingerspelling STOP is more emphatic than signing 'stop'), for clarity, and for instruction.

The American manual alphabet in photographs

ASL includes both fingerspelling borrowings from English, as well as the incorporation of alphabetic letters from English words into ASL signs to distinguish related meanings of what would otherwise be covered by a single sign in ASL. For example, two hands trace a circle to mean 'a group of people'. Several kinds of groups can be specified by handshape: When made with C hands, the sign means 'class'; when made with the F handshape, it means 'family'. Such signs are often referred to as "initialized" signs because they substitute the first letter (the initial) of the corresponding English word as the handshape in order to provide a more specific meaning.

When using alphabetic letters in these ways, several otherwise non-phonemic handshapes become distinctive. For example, outside fingerspelling there is but a single fist handshape - the placement of the thumb is irrelevant. However, within fingerspelling, the position of the thumb on the fist distinguishes the letters A, S, and T. Letter-incorporated signs which rely on such minor distinctions as thumb position tend not to be stable in the long run[citation needed], but they may eventually create new distinctions in the language. For example, due to signs such as 'elevator', which may require the E handshape (depending on the sign used), some argue that E has become phonemically distinct from the 5/claw handshape.

Fingerspelling has also given way to a class of signs known as "loan signs" or "borrowed signs." Sometimes defined as "lexicalized fingerspelling," loan signs are somewhat frequent and represent an English word which has, over time, developed a unique movement and shape. Sometimes loan signs are not even recognized as such because they are so frequently used and their movement has become so specialized. Loan signs are usually glossed as the English word in all capital letters preceded by the pound sign(#). Loan signs are sometimes used for emphasis (like the loan sign #YES substituted for the sign YES), but sometimes represent the only form of the sign (e.g., #NO). Probably the most commonly used example of a loan sign is the sign for NO. In this sign, the first two fingers are fused, held out straight, and then tapped against the thumb in a repeated motion. When broken down, it can be seen that this movement is an abbreviated way of fingerspelling N-O-N-O. Other commonly known loan signs include #BACK, #BUS, #CAR, #JOB, #PIZZA, and #YES.


Writing systems

ASL is often written with English words in all capital letters, which is known as glossing. This is, however, a method used simply to teach the structure of the language. ASL is a visual language, not a written language. There is no one-to-one correspondence between words in ASL and English, and much of the inflectional modulation of ASL signs is lost.

There are two true writing systems in use for ASL: a phonemic Stokoe notation, which has a separate symbol or diacritic mark for every phonemic hand shape, motion, and position (though it leaves something to be desired in the representation of facial expression), and a more popular iconic system called SignWriting, which represents each sign with a rather abstract illustration of its salient features. SignWriting is commonly used for student newsletters and similar purposes.

Baby Sign

In recent years, it has been shown[by whom?] that exposure to sign language has a positive impact on the socialization of hearing children. When infants are taught to sign, parents are able to converse with them at a developmental stage when they are not yet capable of producing oral speech, which requires fine control of both breathing and the vocal tract. The ability of a child to actively communicate earlier than would otherwise be possible appears to accelerate language development and to decrease the frustrations of communication.

Many parents use a collection of simplified or ad hoc signs called "baby sign", as infants do not have the dexterity required for true ASL. However, parents can learn to recognize their baby's approximations of adult ASL signs, just as they will later learn to recognize their approximations of oral language, so teaching an infant ASL is also possible. Typically young children will make an ASL sign in the correct location and use the correct hand motion, but may be able only to approximate the hand shape, for example, using one finger instead of three in signing water.