History of sign language

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The recorded history of sign language in Western societies starts in the 17th century, as a visual language or method of communication. Sign language is composed of a system of conventional gestures, mimic, hand signs and finger spelling, plus the use of hand positions to represent the letters of the alphabet. Signs can also represent complete ideas or phrases, not only individual words.

Most sign languages are natural languages, different in construction from oral languages used in proximity to them, and are employed mainly by deaf people in order to communicate.

Development of sign language[edit]

Juan Pablo Bonet, Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (Madrid, 1620).

One of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato's Cratylus, where Socrates says: "If we hadn't a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn't we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?"[1]

The next earliest use of sign language was recorded in 60 A.D. The first chapter of the Gospel of Luke relates that the angel Gabriel rendered Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, unable to speak because of his unbelief. In Luke 1:62 it is recorded, "And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called." The word "signs" in this passage is translated from the Greek word, enneuo, meaning: to nod at, i.e. beckon or communicate by gesture—making signs.[2] There are two additional recorded references of a similar Greek word (neuo) found in the New Testament in John 13:24 and Acts 24:10.[3]

Until the 19th century, most of what we know about historical sign languages is limited to the manual alphabets (fingerspelling systems) that were invented to facilitate transfer of words from an oral to a sign language, rather than documentation of the sign language itself. Many sign languages have developed independently throughout the world, and no first sign language can be identified. Both signed systems and manual alphabets were found worldwide, and, though most recorded instances of sign languages seem to occur in Europe in the 17th century, it is possible that popular European ideals have overshadowed much of the attention earlier signed systems may have otherwise received. It was commonly accepted, for instance, that "the deaf" could not be educated; when John of Beverley, Bishop of York, taught a deaf person to speak in 685 AD, it was deemed a miracle, and he was later canonized [4] Generally, philosophies linking (spoken) language and intelligence persisted well into the Enlightenment. Such hegemonic ideas may have prevented the recognition of histories of certain groups for whom sign languages were integral. Earlier than the 17th century, however, groups of Deaf people may have already lived together in communities, where even in small numbers they may have communicated through basic signing systems.

In Native American communities prior to 1492, for instance, it seems one or more signed systems existed as a lingua franca which neighboring tribes used to communicate with one another[5] Native American communities believed people born deaf were physically and mentally capable, while people in Europe, starting with the urging of Pedro Ponce de León, would not begin to believe so until the late 16th century.[5] Accounts of such signing indicate these languages were fairly complex, as ethnographers such as Cabeza de Vaca described detailed communications between them and Native Americans that were conducted in sign. A number of Martha's Vineyard settlers from a community in Kent, England, for instance, seemed to be carriers of deaf genes, leading to a high density of deaf individuals on the island from the 1700s, being the highest around 1840.[4] This environment proved ideal for the development of what is today known as Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, which was used by hearing and deaf islanders alike. Years earlier, their Kentish ancestors, too, may have had a number of deaf community members and developed their own signing system as well.

Even earlier, between 1500 and 1700, it seems that members of the Turkish Ottoman court were using a form of signed communication (Miles). Many sought-after servants were deaf, as, some argue, they were seen as more quiet and trustworthy. Many diplomats and other hearing members of the court, however, also learned and communicated amongst one another through this signing system, which was passed down through the deaf members of the court.[6]

In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet published Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos ('Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak') in Madrid.[7] It is considered the first modern treaty of phonetics and speech therapy, setting out a method of oral education for deaf children by means of the use of manual signs, in the form of a manual alphabet to improve communication with the deaf. It is suggested that Pedro Ponce de León developed the first manual alphabet from which Juan Pablo Bonet based his writings.[8]

Chirogram from Chirologia, 1644.

In Britain, manual alphabets were also in use for a number of purposes, such as secret communication,[9] public speaking, or communication by deaf people.[10] In 1648, John Bulwer described "Master Babington", a deaf man proficient in the use of a manual alphabet, "contryved on the joynts of his fingers", whose wife could converse with him easily, even in the dark through the use of tactile signing.[11]

In 1680, George Dalgarno published Didascalocophus, or, The deaf and dumb mans tutor,[12] in which he presented his own method of deaf education, including an "arthrological" alphabet, where letters are indicated by pointing to different joints of the fingers and palm of the left hand. Arthrological systems had been in use by hearing people for some time;[13] some have speculated that they can be traced to early Ogham manual alphabets.[14][15]

The vowels of this alphabet have survived in the contemporary alphabets used in British Sign Language, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language. The earliest known printed pictures of consonants of the modern two-handed alphabet appeared in 1698 with Digiti Lingua, a pamphlet by an anonymous author who was himself unable to speak.[16] He suggested that the manual alphabet could also be used by mutes, for silence and secrecy, or purely for entertainment. Nine of its letters can be traced to earlier alphabets, and 17 letters of the modern two-handed alphabet can be found among the two sets of 26 handshapes depicted.

Charles de La Fin published a book in 1692 describing an alphabetic system where pointing to a body part represented the first letter of the part (e.g. Brow=B), and vowels were located on the fingertips as with the other British systems.[17] He described codes for both English and Latin.

By 1720, the British manual alphabet had found more or less its present form.[18] Descendants of this alphabet have been used by deaf communities (or at least in classrooms) in former British colonies India, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda and South Africa, as well as the republics and provinces of the former Yugoslavia, Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Norway, Germany and the USA.

In France, the first sign languages developed in the 18th century. Old French Sign Language was used in Paris' deaf community, before l'Abbé Charles Michel de l'Épée started his deaf school in 1760 in Paris. L'Épée's lessons were based upon his observations of deaf people signing with hands in the streets of Paris. Synthesized with French grammar, it evolved into the French Sign Language. Laurent Clerc, a graduate and former teacher in Paris, went to the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to found American School for the Deaf at Hartford.

The 18th permanent school for the deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut; others followed. In 1817, Clerc and Gallaudet founded the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf). In 1864, a college for deaf people was founded in Washington D.C. Its enabling act was signed by Abraham Lincoln and was named "The National Deaf-Mute College" (later "Gallaudet College" (1894), and then renamed "Gallaudet University") in 1986.

Engravings of Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (Bonet, 1620):

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bauman, Dirksen (2008). Open your eyes: Deaf studies talking. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-4619-8.
  2. ^ Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D.
  3. ^ James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  4. ^ a b Groce, Nora Ellen (1985). Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard. Harvard University Press.
  5. ^ a b Nielsen, K.E. (2012). A Disability History of the United States. Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807022047.
  6. ^ Miles, M. (2000) "Signing in the seraglio: mutes, dwarfs, and jestures in the Ottoman Court 1500-1700."
  7. ^ Pablo Bonet, J. de (1620) Reduction de las letras y Arte para enseñar á ablar los Mudos. Ed. Abarca de Angulo, Madrid, ejemplar facsímil accesible en la [1], online (spanish) scan of book, held at University of Sevilla, Spain
  8. ^ Daniels, Marilyn (1997). Benedictine Roots in the Development of Deaf Education: Listening with the Heart. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey. ISBN 978-0897895002.
  9. ^ Wilkins, John (1641). Mercury, the Swift and Silent Messenger. The book is a work on cryptography, and fingerspelling was referred to as one method of "secret discoursing, by signes and gestures". Wilkins gave an example of such a system: "Let the tops of the fingers signifie the five vowels; the middle parts, the first five consonants; the bottomes of them, the five next consonants; the spaces betwixt the fingers the foure next. One finger laid on the side of the hand may signifie T. Two fingers V the consonant; Three W. The little finger crossed X. The wrist Y. The middle of the hand Z." (1641:116-117)
  10. ^ John Bulwer's "Chirologia: or the natural language of the hand.", published in 1644, London, mentions that alphabets are in use by deaf people, although Bulwer presents a different system which is focused on public speaking.
  11. ^ Bulwer, J. (1648) Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Mans Friend, London: Humphrey and Moseley.
  12. ^ Dalgarno, George. Didascalocophus, or, The deaf and dumb mans tutor. Oxford: Halton, 1680.
  13. ^ See Wilkins (1641) above. Wilkins was aware that the systems he describes are old, and refers to Bede's account of Roman and Greek finger alphabets.
  14. ^ "Session 9". Bris.ac.uk. 2000-11-07. Retrieved 2010-09-28.
  15. ^ Montgomery, G. "The Ancient Origins of Sign Handshapes" Sign Language Studies 2(3) (2002): 322-334.
  16. ^ Moser H.M., O'Neill J.J., Oyer H.J., Wolfe S.M., Abernathy E.A., and Schowe, B.M. "Historical Aspects of Manual Communication" Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 25 (1960) 145-151.
    and Hay, A. and Lee, R. A Pictorial History of the evolution of the British Manual Alphabet (British Deaf History Society Publications: Middlsex, 2004)
  17. ^ Charles de La Fin (1692). Sermo mirabilis, or, The silent language whereby one may learn ... how to impart his mind to his friend, in any language ... being a wonderful art kept secret for several ages in Padua, and now published only to the wise and prudent ... London, Printed for Tho. Salusbury... and sold by Randal Taylor... 1692. OCLC 27245872
  18. ^ Daniel Defoe (1720). "The Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell"

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