The History of Sign Language | Stillman Translations
The History of Sign Language

Sign language has existed for many centuries. No one knows exactly when it was born, but it is believed that it has been used since people have the need of communicating.  

Sign Language was used by many cultures throughout history, even before it was turned into a language with a structure itself (even though they differ from region to region). For example, in America, the Great Plains Indians developed a fairly extensive system of signing.  

In the landing of Columbus to America, communication with aboriginal peoples was made through sign language. Moreover, this language was used for intertribal communication or for hunting purposes, but it had nothing to do with communication among deaf people. 

So, how sign language was born? Let’s take a look… 

The origin of sign language 

Although there is no definite position about its origin, according to Jerome D Schein, a fundamental milestone was when hominids became erect, as their hands were freed for tool using as well as communication. For this reason, some anthropologists regard the onset of Homo erectus as a possible date for the beginning of sign language (about a hundred thousand years ago). 

Throughout human history, deaf people were excluded for being considered useless to society. The Spartans used to throw people with physical disabilities from the mountains, and the Romans into the Tiber River because it was believed that they were not useful for war. During the Middle Ages, deaf people were confined in madhouses. They had no possibility of entering temples or getting married.  

According to the research carried out by Brook Larson and Dr Hallen “in the years before Christ, Aristotle proclaimed that speech and language were one in the same and that those who could not speak were unteachable. This pronouncement on the deaf cursed them for the next two thousand years. They were denied citizenship, religious rights, and were often left out to die or fend for themselves in the times of the ancient Greeks. Because of this, the use of Sign was heavily looked down upon and shamed”. 

The first educators of sign language 

In the sixteenth century, during the time of the Renaissance, educators started questioning the Aristotle’s statement. The Italian physician Girolamo Cardano proclaimed that the mute could “hear by reading and speak by writing”. 

At present, the Spanish monk Pedro Ponce de León is considered to have been the first educator of deaf children –although, there are theories that consider Vicente de Santo Domingo to have been the first educator of deaf children. Ponce de León taught his students to write pointing with his forefinger from his right hand the letters he held with his left hand (two-hand alphabet), and then he showed the objects identified with their corresponding names; later, he made them repeat with the manual method  and write the words that belonged to the objects. In 1545, he started the first school for deaf people ever recorded in history. 

In the 17th century, also in Spain, Juan de Pablo Bonet developed a language pedagogy for deaf speakers. He was responsible for writing the first modern treatise on phonetics and speech therapy “Summary of the letters and the art of teaching speech to the mute” (Reduction de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos). This work proposed a method of oral teaching to the deaf through the use of manual signs in the form of a manual alphabet, to improve the communication of deaf people. 

During the 18th century in Paris, Charles-Michel de L’Épée founded the first public school for deaf people and incorporated sign language, which would later serve as the basis for French sign language. 

Origin of the American Sign Language 

The roots of American Sign Language, or ASL, go back hundred years ago, when the United States was not even a country. In the coast of Massachusetts there is an island called Martha’s Vineyard. Several colonists from England who settled there at the end of the 17th century were deaf, and carried a gene for deafness. For this reason, a large population of deaf people was settled on the island. They all spoke sing language as an organic process of interacting and socializing.  

All deaf people from Martha’s Vineyard started to leave the island in the 1800 to attend the first American school for the Deaf in Connecticut. The school was created by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, he was a preacher and an American educator, who studied at the school for the deaf in Paris, where sign was used as a method of instruction.  

His school began with a combination of methods from different sign systems: the Martha’s Vineyard sign system and different methods used by deaf students from New England. ASL was born from the mixture of Parisian Sign Language and from a method of visually representing some aspects of English. ASL was disclosed and established as the official language of the American Deaf Community. 

Sign language: from exclusion to integration 

The process of expansion of ASL hit a roadblock in 1880, when the first International Congress on Education of the Deaf took place. This event, also known as “The Milan Conference”, was a conference of deaf educators held in Milan, Italy, in which oral education was declared superior to manual education.  As a result of this conference, the use of sign language was banned at schools. After this declaration, schools in Europe and in the USA switched to using speech therapy without sign language, as a method of education for deaf people. 

In the mid-20th century, the American linguist and professor William C. Stokoe began to develop a descriptive method that would allow him to discover the gestural code of linguistic structures of his deaf students. He recognized the expressive value of sign language and expressed that its early learning would help the cognitive development of deaf people. 

Later, in the 1960s, sign language teaching was implemented again, and it started to be recognized as any other oral language. And in the 70s, the National Association of the Deaf conceptualized new approaches to the identity of deaf people, as they were a culturally differentiated community, with its own language and history. 

Throughout the 1990s, deaf people began to fight for their recognition as subjects of law. Although there have been many achievements, yet there is a long way to go regarding inclusion and participation of people with diverse physical conditions.