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"For Hearing People Only" by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan. Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press, 1993

Sample Exerpt:  What is ASL?

by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan

American Sign Language (also called ASL or, inaccurately, "Ameslan") is not "bad English," "broken English," "short English," or any kind of English. Nor is it Morse Code, or fingerspelling, or pantomime.

ASL is a unique language with its own grammatical rules and syntax (sentence structure), and is every bit as precise, versatile, and subtle as English. In some ways, it's even more so.

It's easy enough to describe what ASL isn't. But there is no satisfactory definition of exactly what ASL is. Some Deaf people maintain that there can be no universally acceptable, satisfactory-to-all definition of ASL; others claim that there is (or can be). This is a subject of some controversy. Where to draw the line between what's acceptable and unacceptable ASL? Every user seems to have a different opinion!

ASL has evolved from a blend of Old French Sign Language and what's now called "Old American Sign Language," which has been traced to the "dialect" used in the communities of Chilmark and West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard. Some sort of native sign language was being used well over a century before Laurent Clerc brought French Sign Language to the States in 1817.*

ASL, in other words, is a hybrid of FSL and an indigenous sign language. Many ASL signs were borrowed from FSL, but some have always been "American."

At any rate, ASL has developed quite independently of English. Its structure and vocabulary owe nothing to English, or to British Sign Language. Just like any other modern, living and ever-changing language, ASL continues to evolve. Iconic (pictorial or mime-like) signs gradually become more abstract, more arbitrary. New signs are gradually introduced; old signs are altered or dropped. ASL possesses regional variations (dialects), slang, and fad expressions. There are also puns, word-play (like handshape-rhymes), and plenty of creative humor.

ASL has been the precious heritage of the Deaf com- munity, whose users have nonetheless suffered from widespread prejudice in the Hearing world. Not so long ago, Deaf children were discouraged (if not prohibited) from using ASL even in schools for the deaf, and adults were ashamed to be seen Signing in public. They were made to feel that ASL was strictly inferior to English, and communicating in Sign was not socially acceptable. (Some "well-meaning" hearing teachers considered it "animal-like."). Happily, we've made progress against such destructively ignorant attitudes, but sentiment against ASL still exists, and deaf children still are discouraged from making ASL their first language.

Linguists have only recently begun to pay serious attention to ASL as a language, but ASL has already begun to enrich American culture through theatre, poetry, song, Sign Mime, and storytelling. A new ASL literature-on-videotape is in the making. Even to those who don't understand it, ASL can be enthralling to watch. Its popularity is steadily increasing, and it has been (arguably) labeled the third most widely-used language in the United States. ASL is a beautiful and expressive language that is finally beginning to get the respect it deserves.

Did you know that...

  • people using ASL can communicate comfortably with each other . . . much farther than the loudest shout can carry!?
  • Sign Language is so handy it's used in underwater communication?
  • while whispering can be picked up by microscopic bugging devices, sign language is bug-proof? (CIA take notice)
  • gorillas (and chimpanzees, to some extent) have been taught how to communicate in Sign? (Paradoxically, those who support its use by animals may not favor its use by humans!)
*These communities in Martha's Vineyard had an unusually high incidence of hereditary deafness for many generations. Not only did deaf and hearing residents use Sign with each other, but hearing residents used it among themselves when no deaf people were around. Clerc (1785-1869) was the first Deaf teacher of the deaf in the United States, and co-founder of the American School for the Deaf at Hartford, Connecticut, the first school of its kind here.

What is ASL? from "For Hearing People Only" by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan. Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press, 1993. pp. 29-31.


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