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Sign Language

Page history last edited by Emily 12 years, 1 month ago



“[Sign Language] is, in the hands of its masters, a most beautiful and expressive language, for which, in their intercourse with each other and as a means of easily and quickly reaching the minds of the deaf, neither nature nor art has given them a satisfactory substitute” --- J. Schuyler Long




“Sign Language (also signed language) is a language which, instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses visually transmitted sign patterns (manual communication, body language and lip patterns) to convey meaning—simultaneously combining hand shapes, orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to express fluidly a speaker's thoughts [1].  Many deaf people use sign language, although people of hearing also use it to communicate with the deaf and hearing-impaired people.


“Many deaf people in the United States use American Sign Language (ASL)” [2].  ASL is based on ideas rather than words, and each gesture expresses an idea or concept.  When deaf people communicate with each other, they often use ASL, but when they are communicating with the hearing, they try and modify their signing so it more closely follows the word order of English. 




Sign Language’s written history began in Spain in the 17th century by a man named Juan Pablo Bonet.  In 1629, Juan published ‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak,’ which was thought to be the first modern treatise of Phonetics and Logopedia.  It explained a method of oral education for the deaf by means of using manual signs that was associated with a manual alphabet [1].  From this new language of signs started by Bonet, a man named Charles-Michel-de-l Epee published his alphabet in the 18th century, which hasn’t been altered until the present time. 


The history of the American Sign Language is discussed later in the article. 



Linguistics of Sign

“In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not “real languages” [1].  Signs don’t necessarily have a visual relationship with their elements, much like the spoken language does.  They do have complex grammar of their own, being used for the simple and concrete or the abstract information.


Sign language and oral language do have similarities.  They both organize meaningless units into meaningful semantic units. The elements of a sign are Handshape (or Handform), Orientation (or Palm Orientation), Location (or Place of Articulation), Movement, and Non-manual markers (or Facial Expression), summarized in the acronym HOLME” [1].


In regard to sign languages’ relationship with oral languages, there are common misconceptions.  Manual alphabets are used in sign language and were once taken as proof that sign languages were simplified versions of oral languages, but that is mistaken.  “Finger spelling can sometimes be a source of new signs, which are called lexicalized signs” [1].  Deaf sign languages are independent and do have their own rules and development stages.  One example in one of the resources considers how British Sign Language and American Sign Language are quite different even though both populations of these countries share the same oral language.




American Sign Language

“American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual-gestural language used primarily by deaf residents of the United States and parts of Canada” [4].  The first school for the deaf, the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets (Royal Institute for the Deaf and Mute), was established in Paris during the 18th century, where French Sign Language (FSL) was being taught by the instructors [6].  Then in 1816 Thomas Gallaudet traveled to Paris.  The following year Gallaudet and deaf Frenchman Laurent Clerc opened a school for deaf children in Hartford, Connecticut, today’s American School for the Deaf” [4].  Soon schools for the deaf began to appear in several states.  Among them was the New York School for the Deaf, which opened its doors in 1818.  A school was opened in Pennsylvania in 1820 and a total of 22 schools had been established throughout the US by the year 1863 [5].


Other than becoming the first deaf sign language teacher [5], Clerc had a huge impact on this new language.  “He taught sign language to the American School’s first principal, Gallaudet, to the first generation of the school’s teachers, and to several generations of deaf students” [4].  These students than began leaders throughout the country, spreading this new sign that was being developed. 


ASL’s origin does lie in both Europe and the United States.  “Clerc stated that he modified the sign language he brought from his homeland to fit American customs” [4].  The school records from the American School show that the deaf students came from families with other deaf members, therefore typically creating a system of gestures.  “These probably influenced ASL’s early development” [4].


“Deaf Americans nevertheless kept ASL vibrant as the twentieth century began, passing it from pupil to pupil in school dormitories and playgrounds and from adult to adult in deaf clubs” [4].  ASL dictionaries were produced, and films of ASL masters were created as references for generations to come.



    Alphabet of the American Sign Language (ASL)



Usage of signs in communities of the hearing

“More elaborate systems of manual communication have developed in places or situations where speech is not practical or permitted, such as cloistered religious communities, scuba diving, television recording studios, loud workplaces, stock exchanges, baseball, hunting (by groups such as the Kalahari bushmen), or in the game Charades” [1].  For instance, in Rugby Union the Referee uses a defined set of signs to communicate his/her decisions to the spectators, same with NFL football in the United States.  More recently, incorporating the use of sign language with toddlers before they learn to talk has been encouraged.  This is because some young children can communicate more effectively with signed language before they are able to physically speak, commonly referred to as Baby Sign.


More communities where the overall population of deaf people is high enough, a deaf sign language has been taken up.  Obviously, this would enable more deaf people in those communities to be more socially accepted and not disadvantaged.


"Interest continues to grow in sign language, and it is now the fourth most used language in the United States" [5].



Classification of sign languages

“Although deaf sign languages have emerged naturally in deaf communities alongside or among spoken languages, they are unrelated to spoken languages and have different grammatical structures at their core” [1].  Manually coded languages or a group of sign “languages” belong to the language families of their respective spoken languages.  For example, there are several signed encodings of English. 


Although there has been little linguistic research on the genetic relationships between sign languages, there has been discussion about whether certain sign languages are dialects of a language or languages of a family.



Implications for Media Ecology

Media Ecology is a discipline that in some ways is connected with Sign Language.  In the resource entitled, Seeing Voices, Noam Chomsky is mentioned.  He had written dozen of books on language and can analyze the contribution of sign and language to how this new form of communication was affecting society.  Ursula Bellugi is also mentioned in this book, who also writes and investigates on the neural basis of Sign [3].  Because sign language is an entire language of complex meanings represented by signs, the media ecologist can analyze it as a new form of communication that impacted society when it was first invented.




[1] “Sign Language." Wikipedia. 2001. 22 Nov. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sign_language>.

[2] “Sign Language." The World Book Encyclopedia. 1994.

[3] Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices. New York: University of California Press, 1990.

[4]  "Sign Language, American."  John Vikrey Van Cleve.  Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. Vol. 7. 3rd. ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. p355-357. 10 vols.

[5]  "American Sign Language." "The Perigee Visual Dictionary of Signing." Rod R. Butterworth and Mickey Flodin. The Berkley Publishing Group. 1995

[6]  "Sign Langauge," Microsoft (R) Encarta (R) Online Encyclopedia 2008. <http://encarta.msn.com> (c) 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.



External Links






Original Author:  Emily Hauenstein

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