The History of Sign Language

Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Using hand gestures and body language is one of the oldest and most basic forms of communication. Learn how these simple movements evolved into the many forms of formal sign language used today by deaf communities all around the globe.

Early Forms of Sign Language

Sign language is one of the earliest and most basic forms of human communication. You use signs when you wave hello or point to something you want and you use body language to emphasize an idea. Sign language, in the deaf community, is a form of visual language that uses hand gestures and body language to convey meaning.

We can find many examples of people using visual gestures to express themselves long before a formal sign language was established. Native Americans utilized simple hand signs to communicate with other tribes and to facilitate trade with Europeans. Early settlers of Martha's Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast, carried the genes for deafness. Since this island was separated from the mainland, the trait quickly spread among the inhabitants and a large deaf population was established. A regional sign language developed so that the deaf could communicate with each other as well as with the hearing residents.

A sample of natural hand gestures used in speech, collected and published in 1644 by John Bulwer.
Diagrams of hand gestures.

As early as the 11th century, monks developed basic gestures to aid with essential communication during a vow of silence. In the 1500s, Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Spanish Benedictine monk, adapted these signs to help him educate deaf students in Spain. He is the first recognized teacher of the deaf and his work paved the way for the creation and instruction of a formal sign language. (Prior to this, deaf people were persecuted, mistreated and viewed as being unable to learn or to participate in society.)

Inspired by Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Spanish priest and linguist named Juan Pablo Bonet followed in the monk's footsteps and expanded upon his methods. In 1620, he published the first manual alphabet system with the intent that it be taught to deaf people throughout Spain.

Juan Pablo Bonet and a sample of his manual alphabet.
Sketches of Juan Pablo Bonet and his manual alphabet.

The Birth of Formal Sign Language

Even though the early steps in creating an official language for the deaf were taken in Spain, the first formal sign language was actually developed in France. Charles Michel de l'Eppe, a French priest, was an early and ardent advocate for deaf rights. In 1755, he established the original public school for deaf children, the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris (National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris). This was the first systematic and organized approach to the education of the deaf and it led to l'Epee being referred to as the 'Father of the Deaf.' The students came to the institute from all over the country and they brought with them signs that they had used to communicate at home. l'Eppe adapted these signs along with a manual alphabet and created a sign language dictionary. This standardized sign language is now referred to as Old French Sign Language and quickly spread across Europe and to the United States.

Charles Michel de l Epee, Father of the Deaf, and the Old French Sign Language alphabet.
Sketch of l Eppe and his French manual alphabet.

Sign Language Comes the United States

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a minister in Hartford, Connecticut, had a neighbor whose daughter was deaf. Despite the fact that she could not hear or speak, Gallaudet could tell that she was very intelligent and he took on the challenge of educating her. In 1816, he traveled to Europe to visit the many deaf schools founded by l'Epee's graduates. During his travels, he met Laurent Clerc, a deaf graduate who had become an instructor at l'Eppe's institute. Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to come to the United States with him.

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