A History of Sign Language

Brook Larson
Dr. Hallen
Mid-Term Paper
24 February, 1998

What of the hands? We beg, we promise, call, dismiss, threaten, pray, entreat, deny, refuse, question, admire, count, confess, repent, fear, blush...and what not with a variation and multiplication that vie with the tongue...There is not movement that does not speak both a language intelligible without instruction (Mirzoeff 16).

Who invented sign language? No one has the answer to this question, but it is most likely that the deaf themselves were the ones who created a variety of gestures in order to communicate (Butterword 1). I personally can’t imagine a group of people remaining without any form of communication. As humans, this is an action that happens instinctfully during the process of life. I notice babies making gestures for things they want and even people from other countries using gesture as a way to communicate when a common spoken language does not exist. Just as languages develop differently in different regions, so also did sign language, but historical knowledge about each in its region is very scarce. The history of the development of sign language from the very beginning as we know it, its rise in status to an "official" language in France, its migration to the U.S., and its role worldwide all help build an appreciation for this expressive language and for its legacy of founders who endured persecution on its behalf as well as that of its users.

The "beginnings" of sign language

"Beginnings" of Sign are traced prehistorically, before Christ, and during the Renaissance. There are various theories of why or how it started with scientific evidence to support various views; however, it still remains that no one knows for certain where Sign first originated. Sign is quite possibly older than humankind. There are some who theorize that gesture preceded vocal utterance in human communication, and others who believe that language came straight from the mouths of prehistoric humans, not following an orderly development. As scientific evidence to support the claim that humans used gesture before language, paleontologists, through studying the bones of hominids, have suggested that the voice space of early humans would not accommodate the complex speech apparatus we now have (Schein 47).

According to Schein, when hominids became erect, their hands were freed--for tool using as well as communication. Consequently, anthropologists regard the onset of Homo erectus as a possible date for the beginning of sign language--about a hundred thousand years ago (51).

These of course are all speculations and clash with those whose beliefs don’t include that of human evolution. It is interesting to note, however, that the conditions surrounding early humans also had to affect their choice of a language modality. If they were hunting on open plains, it would make sense that they could and would use signs to communicate with each other so as not to make noise and disturb the animals, but when they moved to the woods or hunted in high grass, verbal signals became more practical and important. This reminds me of elementary school when as students we were in the "open plains" of the classroom and had to use silent gestures to communicate without being caught. However, when we all went outside for recess, it was necessary to use loud voices amid all the playground equipment in order to be heard. We know that in America, the Great Plains Indians developed a fairly extensive system of signing. Various theories of what the Indian’s sign language was used for exist. One is that the sign system developed made it easier for the indigenous peoples to communicate with each other: "it was difficult and sometimes almost impossible for an Indian nation to acquire or speak intelligently any language but its own. . .yet nearly all Indians possessed a means of ready communication between themselves through the medium of sign language" (Samarin 65). A Spanish expedition claimed that ‘every record of the landing of Columbus tells of how they communicated with Indians by sign’ (qtd. in Samarin 65). Theories related to trading with the use of sign as a mutually understandable language, and even romantic views of Indians using sign because they were an "exotic" and "uncivilized" people also exist (Samarin 69-71). However, the sign used by the Indians was more for intertribal communication or for the purposes of hunting (as mentioned above) than for deaf people, and only vestiges of it remain today ("History" 1). Whether or not the gestures used by prehistoric peoples or the Indians reached the stage of being formal languages, eliminating the use of speech and still maintaining complete communication, is an unanswered question (Schein 51).

In the years before Christ, Aristotle proclaimed that speech and language were one in the same and that those who could not speak were unteachable. This pronouncement on the deaf cursed them for the next two thousand years. They were denied citizenship, religious rights, and were often left out to die or fend for themselves in the times of the ancient Greeks. Because of this, the use of Sign was heavily looked down upon and shamed.

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century during the time of the Renaissance that educators called into question the statement of Aristotle. The Italian physician Girolamo Cardano proclaimed that the mute can "hear by reading and speak by writing"* (Schein 52).

*it’s interesting to note that even though this profound statement was made by an Italian, the sign language system used in Italy today is still only recognized as ‘gestures’ (Cameracanna 238).

Putting this idea into practice came from two Spanish priests: Juan Pablo Bonnet and Pedro de Ponce. Religious people such as these had been using sign in the monasteries for centuries. The signs were originally used for particular religious situations, but later took on the shape of natural languages. Pedro de Ponce of the Monastery of San Salvador de Ona started the first deaf school ever recorded in history in 1545, instructing and educating the deaf.

History of the first "official" signed language

Though Sign had existed for many years, a chain of events beginning with the suppression of the deaf and Sign, the birth of a very influential teacher of the deaf (the abbé de l’Epée) the Romantic/Renaissance era, the fight between the Oralists and Manualists, and other events of the times, Sign eventually reached the state of being an "official" language. This "official" state was reacted to both positively and negatively, but through the persecution and opposition, Sign endured.

Prior to the eighteenth century, deaf people did not constitute a category for social intervention by the state and were grouped into a medicalized category. Consequently, deaf people today are considered to be suffering from a disease called deafness. During the French Revolution, the state undertook the regeneration of these "unfortunates," along with other such diseased sections of the public. At first, such regeneration was thought to have come from the methodical sign language devised by the abbé Charles-Michael de l’ Epée (an influential instructor of the deaf in the 1770's who will be discussed later in the paper), but when it later became clear that not only was deafness not disappearing, but that its extent had been greatly underestimated, governments turned their hopes to medicine and speech training ( Mirzoeff 6).

With these new ideas for treating deafness came dissensions among the Manualists, those who thought the language taught should be a signed language, such as abbé de l’Epée, arguing that signed language is the natural language of the deaf and that their education should be primarily in their own language. Others, on the other hand, argued that the deaf must be able to speak in order to communicate with the hearing--the Oralists. Manualist teachers were often evangelical Protestants attracted to sign language as a means of bringing those souls who were previously cut off from the gospel, closer to God. They believed that Sign was a gift from God to the deaf people. They also happened to be products of a Romantic era in philosophy, art, and literature and saw this language as "the original language of mankind" (Baynton 8). Those who argued that the deaf should learn to speak, the Oralists, on the other hand, were part of a group of people who were frightened by growing cultural and linguistic diversity. They thought in terms of scientific naturalism and thus placed the deaf as "inferior races" or "lower animals" (Baynton 8). Oralists, it has been argued, were in many cases completely ignorant of deafness. Their belief seemed to be based more on wishful thinking that all deaf people could lead a normal hearing and speaking person’s life (Baynton 6). I believe that perhaps the Oralists didn’t realize the importance of Signing to lead a type of "normal life" that they so often talked of. Perhaps their intentions were even truly admirable — trying to make those who were deaf "normal" by having them do things that hearing people do. At the root of this method (the Oralist method) and these ideas, however, was the fear of diversity which can lead majorities to suppress minorities.

Each side accused the other of all manner of error, but in the end the majority of the protesters, being hearing, were able to force their form of communication on the deaf. Groups of people, however, practiced the use of Sign and there it flourished and was preserved in the hands and minds of those who used it, later spreading to those who originally had used oral communication (Mirzoeff 5). Though some were able to use Sign and continue its practice, the situation of the prelingually deaf, prior to 1750, was horrible:

Those born deaf were unable to acquire speech, hence "dumb" or "mute"; unable to enjoy free communication with even their parents and families; confined to a few rudimentary signs and gestures; cut off, except in large cities, even from the community of their own kind; deprived of literacy and education, all knowledge of the world; forced to do the most menial work; living alone, often close to destitution; treated by the law and society as little better than imbeciles--the lot of the deaf was manifestly dreadful (Sacks 14).

The Abbé Sicard, student of abbé de l’Epée and teacher of the deaf, questioned why the deaf person was isolated in nature and unable to communicate with other men. He asked "does he not have everything he needs for having sensations, acquiring ideas, and combining them to do everything we do?" (Sacks 14). Sicard’s answer to this question was that a deaf person has no symbols for fixing and combining ideas. It is because of this that there is a communication gap

between him and others. According to Sacks, the hostility and misunderstanding of the deaf could be in part linked back to the Mosaic code, and was reinforced by the biblical exaltation of the voice and ear as the one and true way in which man and God could speak-- "In the beginning there was the Word." (John 1:1). Some voices were heard above these codes that proclaimed that this not need be so. Socrates made the remark: "if we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavor to signify our meaning by the hands, head, and other parts of the body?" (15).

Eventually the mind of a philosopher and an ordinary person came together to change history for the deaf. De l’Epée was first inspired to begin the teaching of the deaf because of his profession as a priest. He could not bear to think of the souls of the deaf-mute living and dying without knowledge of the Scriptures, the Word of God, and other religious necessities. It is said that because of his humility he truly listened to the deaf and thus approached sign language not with contempt, but with awe. De l’Epée acquired the language of the deaf, then used a system of methodical signs — a combination of their own sign and signed French grammar — which enabled deaf students to write down what was said to them through a signing interpreter. This method became the first "official" sign language that enabled the deaf to read and write, thus being able to acquire an education. De l’Epée founded the first school for the deaf, funded by public support, in 1755. He trained many teachers for the deaf, who, by the time of his death in 1789, had established twenty-one schools in France and Europe (Sacks 17).

The breakthrough of a signed language being developed for the deaf has great importance because the speechless person (in the largest sense of the word "speech") can not only tell others what he thinks, but also what he himself thinks. Speech is a part of thought. Not having a

stunted. The development of sign became a method of "opening up the doors of intelligence for the first time" (Sacks 19).

Migration of French Sign to the United States

The accomplishments and work being done in France and other European countries soon would find their way to the U.S. through Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet, and eventually develop into a modified form of French Sign called American Sign Language or ASL. Before its coming, however, there existed many forms of sign language that developed among populations of deaf people--one of the most famous of these occurred in Martha’s Vineyard.

Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, has one of the most famous populations of deaf people. It was here that through a mutation, a 1recessive gene brought out by inbreeding, a form of hereditary deafness existed for 250 years, following the arrival of the first deaf settlers in the 1690's. By the mid-nineteenth century, hardly an up-Island family was unaffected, and in some villages, the incidence of deafness had risen one in four. In response, the whole community learned a generated form of Sign, and there was complete intercourse between the hearing and the deaf. Consequently, the deaf were scarcely seen as "deaf," and certainly not as being at all "handicapped" (Sacks 33).

Sign language began to migrate and change when in 1816, Laurent Clerc, a pupil of Massieu, himself a pupil of de l’Epée and Sicard, was brought to the Untied States by Thomas Gallaudet who had been looking for a teacher of the deaf. He and Clerc set up the American Asylum for the Deaf, in Hartford in 1817. The success of this school eventually led to others being built and new teachers being trained to teach the previously uneducated deaf. Clerc and

Galluadet had an immediate impact because the American teachers up to this point had not imagined an intelligent or capable deaf-mute.

In the 1950's it became clear that a higher education was needed. In 1957, Edward Galluadet, son of Thomas Galluadet, was appointed principal of the Columbia Institution for the Instruction for the Deaf and the Dumb and the Blind. In 1964 the school achieved federal support and later became known as Gallaudet College, the world’s first college for the deaf (Sacks 140-141).

We lack sufficient knowledge of the evolution of ASL from French Sign Language because a large "creolization" of French Sign occurred as it became more Americanized. Deaf people from all over the United States, including Martha’s Vineyard, brought their regional dialects to contribute to the developing national language. There was already a large gap between French sign and ASL by 1876 because of the regional variations brought in and adopted. However, today there are still significant similarities between the two. Enough that an American signer might feel comfortable in Paris. Significant advancements were brought with the "official" form of Sign because prior to 1817, when Clerc brought the standard French method of signing to the U.S., a deaf American traveling across the States would encounter sign dialects incomprehensible from his own (Sacks 19).

Studies and Discoveries in Sign

Numerous studies of the development of signed languages are being published with the cultural acceptance of Sign. In 1977 S. Golden-Meadow and H. Feldman began videotaping a group of profoundly deaf preschool children who were isolated from other signers because their parents preferred that they learn speech and lip reading. Despite their isolation from other

signers and their parents desire that they learn to speak, the children began to develop gestures. They were simple at first, representing people, objects, and actions, but soon developed into a sort of sign that held its own limited syntax and morphology. Like this example, there have been definite attempts to create a language, however, each needs more than one generation to be successful. The second generation could then acquire the signed language as a natural language. The same situation happens in speech. When two groups of people meet, they form a type of grammar-less pidgin. It isn’t until the following generations that grammar is brought in making it into a Creole. For example, a deaf Adam and Eve would improvise signs but lack language; a true, grammatical sign language would evolve only with the development of their children Cain and Abel (Sacks 47). Different, spontaneous dialects or forms of Sign could very well have originated in the same manner without any influence from other dialects or Sign families.

The findings of the spontaneous generation of sign help to uncover the answers to the evolution of Sign in general. According to Sacks,

It appears as if the nervous system, given the constraints of language and visual medium, and the physiological limitations of short-term memory and cognitive processing, has to evolve the sort of linguistic structures, the sort of spatial organization, we see in Sign. And there is strong circumstantial support for this in the fact that all indigenous signed languages — and there are many hundreds, all over the world, which have evolved separately and independently wherever there are groups of deaf people — all indigenous signed languages have much the same spatial structure. None of them resembles signed English, or signed speech, in the least. All have, beneath their specific differences, some generic resemblance to ASL. There is no universal sign language, but there are, it seems,

universals in all sign languages, universals not of meaning, but of grammatical form (114).

The grammatical form of signed languages promotes hot topics for research and fortunately, has also encouraged the research of sign language signs. This seeks to discover exactly what happens in the muscles that effects the configurations and actions of sign language.

Studies are being done at the University of Ottawa which have obtained direct evidence of particular muscle’s actions during the production of ASL signs. Just as information has been gained about speaking gestures by inserting .002-inch electrodes into a person’s tongue and throat, signing has also been studied by inserting the electrodes into arm muscles. Data about speech already suggests that co-articulation — including information about vowels in the production of a consonant and vice versa — may be saying that production and perception work more by constant monitoring of continuous activity than by production and recognition of discrete ‘targets.’ Data found thus far already suggests the same about signing a sign language. If this hypothesis about co-articulation is correct, the timing of the neural messages firing the muscles is a brain function serving language production and other intricate motor acts (Stokoe 532).

Findings such as these are breakthroughs in the realization that Sign is a "true" language in every sense of the word. They have helped ease prejudice and will most likely lead to new discoveries about the brain and its functions.

A universal Sign?

Misinterpretations that sign language are universal is still very widespread, but they’re quite untrue. There are hundreds of sign languages that have arisen independently wherever there are significant numbers of deaf people together. This is why there is American sign

language, Danish sign language, Chinese, Mayan, and French sign languages. In fact there are more than fifty native sign languages. Signed language has most certainly been around since the time of the first deaf-mute as a basic way to communicate, but it wasn’t until much later in the 1800's that methods of sign that correlated with grammar and language of the area were developed (Sacks 17). It was later found through studies that "sign language is an inflected language, with its own grammar and syntax, which are distinct from those of the native spoken language" (Mirzoeff 4).

There is no sign language that should be considered as primitive to any other just as no spoken language is more primitive than another. Each can adequately express feelings, emotions, etc. with an unlimited range of possibilities. The world’s sign languages that have arisen are as distinct and differentiated as the world’s languages. If a history or account of the changing nature of sign were needed, it can be much attributed to the remarkable changes in (hearing) attitudes to the sign language used by the deaf in the last 200 years. The progression of signing through ancient times, it steps to becoming accepted as an "official" language, its migration to the U.S., and studies that have been centered around its spontaneous generation, have all contributed to making signed languages more respectable and recognized universally than ever before.

Works Cited

Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Butterword, Rod R., Flodin, Mickey. The Pocket Dictionary of Signing. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1992.

Cameracanna, Emanuel and Corazza, Serena. "Terms for Spatio-Temporal Relations in Italian Sign Language." Iconicity in Language. ed. Simone, Rattaele. Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s Pub. Company, 1995.

"History of Sign Language." http://www.feist.com/~randys/history.htm.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Silent Poetry. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices--A Journey Into The World Of The Deaf. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Samarin, William J. "Demythologizing Plains Indian Sign Language History." International Journal of American Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Jan. 1987.

Schein, Jerome D. Speaking the Language of Sign. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1984.

Seboek, William C. "Semiotics and Sign Language Research and Practice." Recent Developments in Theory and History. New York: The Semiotic Webb, 1991.

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