The History of Sign Language

Sign language is an integral form of communication in the deaf community. With sign language, deaf people who would have difficulty speaking and learning language like people who can hear are able to communicate as efficiently and seamlessly. However sign language has been an essential aspect of communication throughout human history. Since the beginning of human communication, sign language has changed and evolved into the system that people see today.

Before Formal Sign Language

Early in human history, humans used simple sign language to express basic ideas. Even when vocal communication became the mainstream form of interaction, people would still use hand and facial gestures to enhance ideas in communication. When people were found to be deaf in ancient times, they were often persecuted and mistreated; therefore, deaf people were not given the chance to work on creating a language. This lasted until the 1500's Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Benedictine monk, created his own form of sign language to bypass his "vow of silence". This form of sign language may have been then taught to deaf children later on. In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet wrote a sign language dictionary that outlined how to learn sign language and contained the first sign language alphabet. His sign language alphabet later influenced deaf communication when the first schools for the deaf were opened. In addition, Martha's Vineyard was an area that was settled by about 200 immigrants who carried dominant and recessive genes for deafness, so the inhabitants came up with their own kind of sign language and taught their descendants how to learn sign language.

French Sign Language

Charles Michel De L'Eppe, a French priest, was really considered the "Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education" because he established the first free public school for the deaf in Paris. One day he viewed two deaf sisters communicating with each other in sign language, and realized the deaf could be educated by sign language. He standardized a sign language alphabet for French language and included this in a sign language dictionary that also included symbolic gestures that conveyed concepts as opposed to just letters. His sign language dictionary, his work on signing, and his work on educating the deaf community influenced sign language across the world.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language, or ASL became prominent in the 1800's thanks to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. He wanted to help Alice Cogswell who was his neighbor's deaf daughter, so he travelled to Europe to study how to communicate with deaf people. From there, he met Laurent Clerc who was a deaf instructor of sign language, and the two of them returned to America to found the first school for the deaf. From there they began to teach deaf Americans how to learn sign language and began establishing a unique sign language in the United States. ASL was then invented using signs from French Sign Language, as well as signs from the community in Martha's Vineyard, and may have been influenced by the signing system of the Great Plains Native Americans. Schools soon spread all over the United States, and eventually even a college for the deaf was created by Gallaudet's son. 

Sign Language Worldwide

ASL however was not the only sign language developed. All over the world, different sign languages developed, including in England BSL and Australia Auslan. Even though speakers of English can understand Americans, British, and Australian people equally, with some colloquial differences, signers in America, England, and Australia would be unable to understand each other because the signs are very different. Most of the differences in these signs are based on nuances within the deaf communities of that area, which has led to an interesting evolution of sign language worldwide. It can be said that there are as many sign languages in the world as there are spoken languages.

The history of sign language has an interesting past, being the first form of communication in early man. Sign language then went on to help end the discrimination of deaf people, and helped the deaf to become educated like their hearing peers. This start began in France and then spread to the United States. Now worldwide, many sign language schools and different sign languages exist.