The History of American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL)

Whenever people cannot communicate verbally, there’s a simple solution: we make signs. Whether we can hear or not, this is what we fall back on in situations when we don’t speak the language or when we’re too far away or the background is too noisy to hear each other. Signs, then, are as fundamental to communication as any spoken words ever are, and some may even argue that they’re more fundamental in many ways. Babies can learn signs well before they can speak.

The hearing community, however, tends to rely mostly on verbal communication. What do we do, however, when we have a friend or family member who cannot hear?

There have been and still are some cultures in the world who hide away or even kick out members who cannot hear; many, however, instead put their minds toward developing a way to communicate. To creating a language of signs that is full and complex and allows ideas to be expressed, not just concrete nouns and action verbs.

On the American continent, Native Americans had a language of signs for many years. They used this to communicate between tribes when languages and dialects were so numerous and rarely overlapping. These signs were crucial for trade.

As European settlers colonized the land, New England soon saw a rise in children born deaf, thanks to the necessity of intermarrying among the colonists. The villages where these instances were especially high–Martha’s Vineyard; Henniker, New Hampshire; and the Sandy River valley in Maine–soon developed full sign languages that were used not only by the direct families of deaf individuals, but often by the entire town, since so many people had family members who required it. These three sign languages bore some similiarities but also many signs unique to their region.

Meanwhile in Europe in the 1700s, French Sign Language (LSF) was being developed and taught in the Parisian School for the Deaf, which was founded in 1755. This became in many ways “the” sign language, given that it was used at a national-level school, and teachers soon brought it to the New World.

In 1817, the American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut. Many of its first pupils were from Martha’s Vineyard, Henniker, and Sandy River, so they brought their unique languages with them. The first teacher at the school, Laurent Clerk, brought French Sign Language with him from Europe. The result was that within the first few decades of the ASD being open, a new language was born: American Sign Language.

ASL combines LSF with MVSL (Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language) as well as the other dialects from New England. Thanks to the combination, ASL is not considered a dialect of its French predecessor, having too few words in common; it is, instead, its own language. A language with its own rules, its own syntax, and its own vocabulary.

Gaining recognition as a language in and of itself, however, took more than a century. Up until the 1960s, sign language was considered a “lesser” means of communication, and many deaf schools still insisted that students should be taught to speak and lip-read. It wasn’t until William Stokoe campaigned for recognition and devised a means of transcription of ASL in the 1960s that educational institutions began to recognize ASL as a full language.

Today, ASL is in use not only on the American Continent but in much of the English-speaking world among the deaf communities. It’s also now recognized as a foreign language that be learned in schools by hearing students as well, and in 2013 a petition was signed by the White House granting ASL as “an official language of instruction” in American schools. American Sign Language has also served as the base for many other sign dialects and languages throughout the world.

Much like spoken language, ASL speakers in different parts of the country will have what amounts to “accents”: Southern signers use fluid, slower motions, while those from New York are quick and clipped.

ASL generally uses a syntax of subject-verb-object. Words like articles are left out. So The father loves his child. Would be “father + love + child.” If you read Yesterday’s Tides, you’ll have noticed that I reflected this syntax in the dialogue spoken in ASL (special thanks to ASL teacher Deanna Davidson for helping me portray this speech accurately!).

Finger Spelling

Discover More

from the world of

Yesterday’s Tides

Print Friendly, PDF & Email