Sign language has always had a confusing place in American history. Although the earliest forms of sign language far outdate the development of the United States, the history of ASL (American Sign Language) is a dark and fraught one. Today, millions of people, deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing, use sign language daily, and the “deaf community” has become a culture onto itself.
Where Did Sign Language Come From?
Although there have always been deaf and hard of hearing people in the world, no true universal form of communication was created until well into the 17th century. Schools for the deaf were not created until the 18th century, and even then it was for the purpose of teaching the deaf to read lips, not to learn sign language. In America, sign language was demonized until the 20th century, and children caught using their hands to sign were physically punished. It became so taboo to sign that some educators would tie deaf students hand together so that they were not physically able to sign. Today, sign language is still largely misunderstood, and is taught in very few high schools.
- The very first mention of “sign language”, or speaking with hands, can be found in a written letter by Socrates from 5th century BC to a friend, in which he questions why the deaf could not just use their hands to communicate, as the dumb did.
- There is hardly any written history about sign language before the 19th century, but we have found several examples of manual finger-spelling (the sign language alphabet) put into practice as far back as the 1400’s in Britain.
- In 1620, a man named Juan Pablo Bonet from Madrid published a manual that included pictures of the sign language alphabet, a breakthrough that allowed both adults and children to learn the signing alphabet.
- The sign language alphabet used to be performed with two hands, instead of the one handed system that is universally used today.
- No two signing languages are the same, and each country has their own rich deaf history. Many countries did not develop a deaf school until the 18th century, except Britain, who established a school for the deaf in the 17th century.
- ASL is a signing language that is completely different from English Sign Language, which is taught in every English speaking European country. Although every country’s sign language system is different, English Sign Language and ASL still share many of the same hand gestures, and nearly the same alphabet.
Basic sign language rules
Many believe that sign language is just a series of hand formations put together to make a sentence, but sign language has its own syntax, verb formations, adjectives, etc. Below are some basic sign language formatting rules. There are ten basic formatting rules, commonly referred to as TRIPSTONCL:
- Topic/comment: In a simple topic/comment sentence, the topic is described first, then the comment is added. Ex: “His coat gone, he cold”.
- Rhetoric: In a rhetorical question, the signer asks the question, and then promptly answers it. Ex: “Me know sign? Yes.”
- Information seeking: simple questions that seek information can use several different sentence structures, and sometimes use non-manual signs so that they are distinguished from a declarative sentence. It is often taught that facial expressions play more heavily in sentences seeking information. Ex: “Name you?”
- Pronominalization: When a pronoun is used, a simple finger point or the direction of the signer’s gaze can indicate that they are talking about someone or someplace else. Ex: “My mother, she visit me.” In this case, the signer could point to their mother, or to an empty spot nearby to indicate his/her mother.
- Simple yes/no: In simple yes/no sentences, the adjectives can become interchangeable. Ex: “You want read?” and “You read want?” mean the same thing.
- Tense with time: When using time in a sentence in the tense form, the sign for time is placed near the beginning of the sentence. Ex: “Me yesterday, go shopping.” In this example, time was mentioned at the beginning of the sentence, to establish tense.
- Ordering of simple sentences: In a simple sentence, the verb can be placed either before or after the sentence’s object. Ex: “Me eat food.” Or “Me food eat.” are the same.
- Negate: You can negate a thought several ways; by placing a negative sign before the verb, by describing a topic then signing in the negative, or by shaking the head negatively. Ex: “Me not watch movie.” The not is the indicator that the thought will be negative.
- Conditional: In a conditional sentence, the condition is described first, and then the outcome of the condition. Ex: “Suppose he see me, we have to go.”
- Long yes/no: In a long yes or no question, the topic is addressed before the question. Ex: “Car this is broke down, yours?”
Where you can learn it
Sign language is becoming more popular than it was decades ago; even people outside of the sign language community are seeking places to learn sign language. In large urban communities, groups and clubs host events where people can come together to use sign language on a daily basis. So where are some places that you can learn signing?
- School clubs/programs—although most high schools don’t teach sign language as a preferred foreign language, many high schools do host after school programs or clubs for people interested in sign language. If your high school doesn’t currently have a sign language club, start one!
- College—nearly every college in the world offers sign language as a foreign language. College classes are a great way to learn sign, and to get in touch with other people who are also interested in sign language.
- The Library—your local public library is sure to have tons of books on sign language, including books about rules, books full of illustrated signs, and basic sign phrases.
- Online—if you are not able to easily get to a library, or into an urban area with large populations, the internet is a great place to find more information on sign language and the various signing languages from all over the world.
- Local classes—some communities offer local sign language classes for people who regularly interact with the deaf or hard of hearing. If your community doesn’t offer signing classes, get in touch with a government official and inform them that there is interest in starting one.
Jobs for people interested in sign language
With interest in sign language growing, there are also more and more career opportunities opening up for people who want to spend their lives interacting and helping the deaf and hard of hearing. Every government business is required by law to have a sign language interpreter on hold.
- Teachers—graduate schools are popping up all over the country for those interested in a career in teaching sign language. Colleges, afterschool programs, and even some high schools are constantly looking for qualified teachers to teach sign.
- Interpreter—interpreters are used almost everywhere! Government officials use interpreters during conferences, at speeches, and during televised events, so that anyone in the crowd that is deaf can understand what is happening. Many stores also use interpreters to converse with deaf customers. The list of places that use deaf interpreters is long, and includes: doctor’s offices, government businesses, retail stores, libraries, schools, churches, among others.
- Speech pathologist—many people that get degrees in sign language interpretation choose to use their educations to become experts of speech. Unlike teachers, speech pathologists often work with children who have cochlear implants, and are adjusting to life as a hearing individual. Because they are educated in both sign and speech, sign language graduates make ideal speech pathologist teachers.
Sign language is constantly evolving, and no two countries have the same sign language culture. From its beginnings thousands of years ago, when the deaf were forced to communicate with crude gestures and hand signals, to its demonization in America during the 18th and 19th centuries, to the current deaf culture we have today, sign language will always be relevant.
3 in 1,000 children are born deaf or partially deaf and many millions of the elderly lose their hearing every year. Hopefully, in the years to come, we will see a spur in the teaching of sign language in elementary schools and high schools, during the years when language is still forming. Sign language is only gaining in popularity and understanding, and will continue to do so in the coming years.