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Topic: Indigenous Signs in America
Deaf Culture: Book Excerpt


"A Brief Cultural History of Deaf America"
-- from A Study of American Deaf Folklore by Susan Rutherford, Ph.D.
Burtonsville, MD: Linstock Press, 1993. p.3


"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 today.

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.
 

Source:  "A Brief Cultural History of Deaf America" from A Study of American Deaf Folklore by Susan Rutherford, Ph.D. Burtonsville, MD: Linstock Press, 1993. p.3
 


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