American Sign Language: Roots and History
The French Connection
The story may be apocryphal, but even if its only value is as metaphor, it works beautifully. In a poor section of Paris in 1755 — a dark and stormy night works well — the Abbe Charles Michel de l’Epee was making his rounds, looking for lost souls in need of the Church. Wet and cold, he noticed a slightly open door with light coming from within.
Standing in the doorway, he saw two sisters huddled in front of the hearth. He asked permission to enter, but was puzzled when the girls merely stared, offering no reply. He was about to leave when another door opened and the girls’ mother entered. She begged the Abbï¿½’s forgiveness and explained that her daughters were deaf, seemingly doomed to poverty and isolation.
For the Abbe and his mission, the girls’ deafness posed a unique obstacle. His passion was to bring people into the Church, and to do this they had to understand the message of the Bible. But how could he teach those who could neither hear nor read and had no knowledge of French? How could he explain the sacraments without language? How could he even tell them of the existence of God?
Epee decided that the key was in educating deaf people, but he knew that others had considered the task impossible. Greek philosophers generally held that thought was possible only through articulating sounds into words. Aristotle felt hearing to be superior to sight, and the blind to be more intelligent than the deaf. St. Augustine said of deafness, “This impairment prevents faith,” and St. Paul said, “Faith comes through hearing.” In the Justinian Code of ancient Rome, full rights were available only for those who could speak and were educated.
There had been attempts to educate deaf people, primarily through tutoring for wealthy families. A few teachers made use of manual alphabets to render a spoken language visible, but almost all concentrated on teaching speech. This meant endless hours of training, with the claims of success ranging from modest to wildly fantastic. Often, the distinction between the ability to speak and the ability to understand concepts was lost. So valued was the voice as representative of the human soul that many insisted that speech skill was a prerequisite for humanity; after all, God was supposed to have brought the world into being when he said, “Let there be light.” This moved the German physician and speech teacher Francis von Helmont to suggest that had it not been for Adam and Eve’s seminal indiscretion in the Garden of Eden, human reproduction itself could have been accomplished through the more dignified medium of speech.
Epee began with traditional methods, but soon noticed that not only were these sisters able to communicate with each other through “gestures,” but that other deaf people on the streets of Paris seemed to share this ability. The more he watched, the more convinced he became that these gestures were not, as most assumed, simply wild and primitive pantomime, but rather “the language of signs.”
Epee then set out to do what no one else had — learn from deaf people so that he could teach them. This was not just a novel teaching strategy. While others had concentrated on making deaf people fit into a hearing mold, to make “them” more like “us,” Epee saw something more important than this conformity. By being willing to use sign language for instruction, he tacitly accepted their deafness as well as their language. Bypassing religious philosophy, Epee set out on his mission: “I will attempt to get to heaven by at least trying to lead others there.”He opened a school in the 1760s, eventually enrolling as many as 200 deaf students. For the next hundred years the competing “oral” and “manual” philosophies waged a tug of war for popularity and students, with signing increasingly predominant. One of Epee’s main adversaries was Samuel Heinicke, who developed a method to teach spoken language through taste; vinegar corresponded to the letter I, extract of wormwood to E, and so on. This did not catch on.
In 1815 Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a minister in Hartford, Connecticut, and had a young deaf neighbor named Alice Cogswell. When Gallaudet started to teach her the alphabet, her father raised the money to send Gallaudet to Europe, where he had heard deaf children were being formally educated. In London Gallaudet serendipitously met the Abbe Roch-Ambroise Sicard, Epee’s successor at the Paris school, who was in town conducting public exhibitions to demonstrate his students’ abilities. Gallaudet followed Sicard back to Paris and spent four months there studying French Sign Language (FSL) and the school’s teaching methods. When it was time to return, Gallaudet asked Lauren Clerc, a dashing and energetic deaf teacher known for his beautiful and eloquent signing, to accompany him. With considerable hesitation, fearing wolves and Indians in the wilds of Connecticut, Clerc agreed to go.
In 1817 they opened the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford and had 31 students from 10 states by year’s end. The students’ “home signs” blended with FSL and the “methodical signs” that Epee had developed for instructional purposes. This dynamic cauldron of language evolved into what is now American Sign Language — ASL. Equally important, graduates and representatives of the school established similar schools in other states, spreading ASL and further standardizing it. The Hartford school, now the American School for the Deaf, is still in operation.
In 1861 Abraham Lincoln established another institution for deaf students in Washington, DC, and Gallaudet’s son Edward Miner Gallaudet became the first president of Gallaudet College, now Gallaudet University. He modeled its pedagogy and communication on those of his father’s school: sign language and written English instruction for all, and speech training for those who could benefit from it. This rekindled the central dispute between the signing and oral camps, which had become more sociological than religious: enabling a person to reach his or her full potential, versus the need for deaf people to fit in with “the hearing world.”
The Conflict Heats Up
Meanwhile, in Scotland, and long before beginning the work that resulted in the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell was becoming an elocutionist. As a child he claimed to have taught the family dog to say, “How are you, Grandmama?”, and this passion, along with the fact that his mother was hard of hearing (she had excellent speech and taught piano), led him into teaching speech to the deaf. Influenced by Darwin’s ideas concerning genetics, Bell discouraged signing among the deaf for fear that it would encourage them to create a closed community, leading to more deaf marriages and more deaf children. (Ninety percent of deaf people marry other deaf people, but deafness is a recessive gene and accounts for only 13 percent of deaf children.) One of the few oralists who could sign well, Bell nonetheless became influential in establishing oral schools and advising Congress against the use of sign language among the deaf.
Bell, with a hard-of-hearing mother who did not sign, and Edward Gallaudet, the son of legendary ASL advocate Thomas Gallaudet, were set for a clash, and history did not shrink from this entertainment. The two men debated often in Congress, in public, and in print. During an uneasy truce following one particularly contentious episode, Gallaudet wrote, “We have buried the hatchet. But I know where it is.”
Their argument was soon subsumed in a tide of oralism that swept through Europe and then America. A carefully rigged 1880 conference of hearing educators of the deaf in Milan proclaimed the superiority of speech and forbade the use of signing in education. Edward Gallaudet and a number of deaf people attended a subsequent conference in Paris in 1900, but to no avail; their contingent was effectively excluded from the proceedings. This decision, “Vive la parole!”, resulted in the firing of almost all deaf teachers on both sides of the Atlantic. “Since when,” said one Italian professor, “do we consult the patient on the nature of the treatment?”
Meanwhile, ASL continued to thrive. Because it is a fully accessible language for those who cannot hear, in a way that no spoken language can ever be, forbidding it had little effect outside the classroom. In residential schools, where most deaf children were educated, the younger students learned it from the older. In adult deaf communities, it was simply their language. But in classrooms and within sight of the teachers, ASL was largely prohibited for the next half century, often to the point of physical punishment for transgressors.
ASL’s Modern Resurgence
In the early 1960s Dr. William Stokoe, a hearing linguist and English professor at Gallaudet, started formally analyzing the sign language he was learning and seeing around him. Noting that certain facial expressions marked specific grammatical constructions consistently from signer to signer, he realized that ASL is “rule governed” — that it has its own grammar. This “discovery” began both modern ASL linguistic research and its acceptance as true language, and was the start of its reintroduction into the classroom.
Today, sign language is the fourth most-used language in the United States, is the language of instruction at least part of the time with most of America’s 47,000 deaf schoolchildren, and is taught at thousands of colleges. (Vassar has offered this as a mini-course in the past.) Every state has at least one residential school serving deaf students in grades K–12, where teachers sign their instruction; but most deaf students attend their local public schools. Thousands more attend two- and four-year colleges, and federal laws require that all students be provided with interpreting services when needed. Gallaudet University has about 1,200 deaf undergraduate students, as does the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, founded in 1968 at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Faculty at both colleges, hearing and deaf, teach with ASL.
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is an organization of deaf people with chapters in every state and about 20,000 members. Formed in response to the early 20th-century attempts to eradicate ASL, its biennial conventions draw about 2,000 members for workshops and socializing. The most recent was last summer in Washington, DC, in conjunction with Deaf Way II, the second international festival of deaf artists and culture. About 12,000 deaf people participated, representing over 90 countries. It was both educational and a huge party — a celebration of sign languages from all over the world.
Although oral and manual communication coexist in education today, two developments have recast their old conflict. Cochlear implants are devices that attach to the skull near the ear, with a wire to a control device. Sending ambient sound electronically straight into the auditory nerve, they bypass the ear and are far more effective than hearing aids. They can help with English acquisition and speech development and are attractive to hearing parents of deaf children. Similarly, a manual phonetic code for English, Cued Speech, has demonstrated effectiveness in teaching English.
But here’s the rub: Cochlear implants and Cued Speech tend to be used instead of ASL by hearing parents who feel that signing will separate their deaf children from them and hearing society — and over 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents. But deaf children who cannot sign often find themselves caught between two worlds — unable to speak and hear as well as their hearing peers and unable to sign with other deaf people. Many see this as unfairly withholding their natural means of communication, as well as their natural community.
The place of sign language in the overlapping deaf and hearing worlds remains volatile and occasionally contentious. But for the deaf community, it is, as always, simply their language. As George Veditz, an early NAD president, signed in a 1914 film produced by the NAD at the height of the oralist tide, “As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have our beautiful sign language…the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”
— Geoffrey Poor '74
About the AuthorAfter taking a sign language class in 1977, Geoffrey Poor ‘74 “simply fell in love with the language. It provides wonderful playfulness, beauty, and eloquence.” He soon enrolled in an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter training program in Seattle. Poor then moved across the country to become a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the deaf in Bangor, Maine. In 1983, he accepted a post at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Now an associate professor, Poor’s latest project was the creation of the ASL Video Dictionary and Inflection Guide, an interactive CD-ROM with 2,700 signs, most of them linked to one or more of 650 sentences showing how ASL’s signs change to show different meanings. “ASL is delightfully plastic — signs and phrases can be inflected with endless nuance for an amazing range of meaning,” remarked Poor.
Poor currently lives in Honeoye Falls, New York, with his wife Joan Clawson ‘76. They have three sons, Ted (21), Willie (18), and George (12).