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Evolution of a Language: American Sign Language

Ari Savitt
June 20, 2007

American Sign Language (ASL) is a rich and unique language with a long history that has evolved over time (Humphries & Padden, 1988, p. 2). In these contemporary times it isn’t rare to see two or more deaf people moving their hands in elaborate motions using detailed facial expressions and communicating with each other using their cultural language, American Sign Language. This paper will examine the following questions: how did ASL come to be? Who advocated for deaf education? And what were some of the challenges that ASL had to overcome to become the language of the Deaf? To aid in answering these questions, four topics will be explored:

1.      European Influence: The Early Roots

2.      Martha’s Vineyard: Signing on American Soil

3.      Gallaudet, Clerc, and Cogswell: Advocates for Deaf Education Using Sign Language

4.      ASL Today

Through these topics it should become clear that ASL is a dynamic language that has changed throughout its early beginnings and continues to evolve in these contemporary times.

European Influence:

The Early Roots

Just like America, ASL has its roots in other countries. The European nations hold an important role in the beginnings of Deaf communication. One of the oldest references for finger spelling was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo Bonet from Spain. The book contained a reproduction of Melchor de Yebra’s fingerspelling chart (Crouch & Van Cleve, 1989,  p. 12). Anthony Deusing published a book in Holland called, The Deaf and the Dumb Man Discourse in 1656; this book gave an influential view on why Signing is an easier method of teaching than the oral methods (Crouch & Van Cleve, 1989, p. 16). Deaf Persian bookbinder named Pierre Desolges wrote "Observations of a Deaf-Mute" in 1779, the book described the signs that the Deaf Persians used. He printed this book in retaliation to Abbe Dechamps proclamation that sign language was not important in educating the Deaf youth. This showed early conflicts in the teaching methods over whether oral or signing should be used to educate the Deaf (A Short History of ASL, 2007, paragraph 7).

            As far back as the 1700's, in France, there was a type of sign language called Old French Sign Language (OFSL), which could be used to talk about politics, family and so forth (A Short History of ASL, 2007, paragraph 9). A cleric named Abbe De L’epee realized the potential for using OFSL as an educational tool for the Deaf. L’epee and others placed a French stylized grammar structure into OFSL, not realizing there was a grammar style already existing in OFSL. This new style of signing was later called, Old Signed French (OSF). The French Deaf community eventually had two signing systems at the same time. OSF was used in classrooms and formally, while OFSL was used more casually in daily life and with tasks (A Short History of ASL, 2007, paragraph 8). In 1771 a Deaf school was established in Paris, France. Enabling French Deaf children to get the education their parents wanted them to have, in France creating a larger French Deaf community (A Short History of ASL, 2007, paragraph 10). On July 1815 Abbe Sicard Epee became head of the royal institute for the Deaf, in Paris. He would become very influential in the creation of ASL when he later took his examples of his schools’ signed language to London to promote his teachings. In London, with one of his brilliant graduates,  Laurent Clerc, he met up with an American, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, and invited him to the school in Paris to learn OSF. This would mark the beginning of American Sign Language. To this day ASL and FSL share more than fifty percent of their signs (A Short History of ASL, 2007, paragraphs 13, 14 & 15).

Martha’s Vineyard:

 Signing on American Soil

                Around 1690 the island community of Martha’s Vineyard was predominantly hearing, but because there were so many Deaf citizens, nearly everybody was able to communicate with each other through a form of sign language that was commonly called Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) (Deaf History-Martha’s Vineyard, 2007, paragraph 2). Martha’s Vineyard became one of the earliest stable communities for the hearing and Deaf in America. The people of Martha’s Vineyard were known to have a hereditary disease that caused Deafness (Deaf History-Martha’s Vineyard, 2007, paragraph 3). The birth rate of Deaf to hearing on the island in the late 1800's was 1 in 155, whilst the national birth rate of Deaf to hearing was 1 in 2,730 (Deaf History-Martha’s Vineyard, 2007, paragraph 4). Martha’s Vineyard’s Deaf and hearing community lasted about two centuries and ended with the death of the last native born Deaf islander in the 1950's (Deaf History-Martha’s Vineyard, 2007, paragraph 3). Even though Martha’s Vineyard might now be know as a great summer getaway, it will always remain a keystone of hope and pride in the glorious history of Deaf communities; however it played a small role in the overall development of ASL. To look at what, or better yet, who was responsible for ASL’s creation and development then we would have to examine three men: Gallaudet, Clerc and Cogswell.

Gallaudet, Clerc and Cogswell:

Advocates for Deaf Education Using Sign Language

            ASL didn’t exist during the heyday of America, and so parents with Deaf children were forced to find help in European countries, which had private academies that specialized in deaf education (Crouch &Van Cleve, 1989, p. 24). This was the only option for a proper education that was available for the Deaf families in America. The educational practice for the Deaf stayed this way until the first half of the nineteenth century. The parents of the Deaf and the Deaf community had not been fully unified because they had no school, and they were now seeking those educational practices inside America (Crouch & Van Cleve, 1989, p. 29). In 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a young American who studied at Yale decided to learn the European methods of educating Deaf after befriending his neighbor’s Deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell. He left America for the Briadwoods School in England, which taught the Deaf. There he found that the style of teaching was predominantly the oral method, not allowing the Deaf to use signs (Crouch & Van Cleve, 1989, p. 34). This was not the method Gallaudet was interested in learning and teaching.  After meeting a group of deaf French students and teachers while in England at a conference, he was invited to the Deaf school in Paris, France. During his stay in France, Gallaudet studied the French method of Sign language. Later he returned to America with an incredible Deaf French scholar of French Sign Language, Laurent Clerk, to open a school that used this type of teaching (Crouch & Van Cleve, 1989, p. 35-37).

            On April 15, 1817 in Hartford Connecticut, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened. This was the first institute that aimed at understanding their world. Later the American School for the Deaf was established by Cogswell (Alice’s father), Gallaudet, and Clerk (Crouch &Van Cleve, 1989, p. 29-30). These were some of the first major steps toward creating modern ASL. The New York Institution for the Deaf opened its doors to students for the first time in May of 1818. Young Alice Cogswell was the first student to enroll in the school. She was a catalyst for Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s travels to England and France in search of Deaf Education (Crouch & Van Cleve, 1989, p. 43-44). By 1857, America had 19 schools for the Deaf, and in 1864 the famed Edward Miner Gallaudet, grandson of Thomas Hopkins Galluadet, founded the Gallaudet University -Collegiate Department of The Columbian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (Crouch &Van Cleve, 1989, p. 78). The University of Gallaudet would later become a symbol of pride and glory for the Deaf community in America. By 1867 every Deaf school in America was teaching ASL, but in 1880 the Congress of Milan decided that speech should be taught over sign in Deaf schools, and so by 1907 not a single Deaf school taught their students sign language (Dolnick, 1993). Slowly but surely sign found its way back into Deaf education, and wasn’t challenged again until the 1970's. During that time a method of teaching speech and lip-reading to Deaf students called Total Communication, started to emerge (Dolnick, 1993). This proved to be a difficult task for the students, causing many of them to give up rather then to learn. In 1988 the Commission on Education of the Deaf addressed to the President and to Congress that the education of the Deaf this country wasn’t what it should be (Donlick, 1993). By the early 1990's, ASL became the mode of educating the Deaf in America.

ASL Today

            By 1988 the Commission on Education of the Deaf addressed to the President, and also to Congress, that the education of the Deaf in this country wasn’t what it should be (Kinzie & Ruane, 2006). By the early 1990's ASL became the mode of educating the Deaf. ASL has a long and glorious history that is only amplified by the pride of the community that uses it. From its subtle origins in Europe to its early heroes like Abbe de Leppe, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Laurent Clerc and Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell who helped create and spread the use of ASL. Without these men, the vast expansion and the use in educating the Deaf and forming a strong Deaf culture through ASL might not have been possible, and perhaps the European schools would have been the only means of education for Deaf Americans. What was once an idea to teach Deaf American children is now the mainstream language of a rich culture.


Works Cited

About.com Deaf History/ Martha’s Vineyard (1-22-2006) Available: http://www.deafness.about.com/cs/featurearticles/a/marthasvineyard.html  [9, 29, 2006]

 Crouch, Barry A. and  SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Van Cleve, John V. (1989). A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, D.C. Gallaudet University Press.

Dolnick, Edward. (1993 September). Deafness As A Culture. Atlantic Monthly.  [periodical, selected stories on-line]. Available: http://scplweb.org  [1993    September]

Geocities.com [home page of geocities], [online].(12 2002) available: http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/9672/HistoryASL.html  [2006, 9, 27]

Humphries, Tom and Padden, Carol (1988). Deaf in America: Voices From a Culture Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England.

Kinzie, Susan and Ruane, Michael E. (2006, May 5) Gallaudet's Next President Won't Bow Out. Washington Post. P. A01 http://www.washingtonpost.com 


 


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