"Considering how much of our socialization
and education depends on language, we cannot understand the culture of
Deaf people without understanding the educational system that controls
the Deaf individual's enculturation and linguistic development. To get
a true picture of that educational system, we must look at a brief history
of its evolution together with the development of American Sign Language.
In 1815 the Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Protestant
minister from Connecticut, traveled to Europe to learn of methods of educating
deaf children. In 1817, he returned to the United States with a Deaf Frenchman,
Laurent Clerc, and together they established the first permanent school
for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. This seemingly benign event has
much to do with the development of American Sign Language as we see it
The fact that the American Asylum for the Education
of the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford
was established as a residential school created a linguistic community
of Deaf people communicating in a visual mode. Laurent Clerc had taught
French Sign Language (FSL) to Gallaudet, and together they provided linguistic
role models for the students.
On this historical basis alone the French were
long credited with the establishment of ASL, and ASL was long thought wholly
derived from FSL. However, historical linguistic study, principally by
James Woodward (1978) and Woodward and Erting (1975), reveals that while
approximately 60 percent of today's ASL vocabulary can be traced to FSL
cognates, 40 percent cannot. This provides strong evidence that, while
the introduction of FSL and the existence of an environment conducive to
language development were pivotal in the development of modern day ASL,
there was some indigenous form of sign prior to that time."
-Susan Rutherford, Ph.D.