Sunday, July 01, 2007

Plain Old Facts about the Origins of ASL and My Opinions

I would like to explain the origins of ASL to clarify misconceptions as I am sure most of you know it already. Nevertheless, I just feel compelled to clear the air by focusing on the facts that support my opinions. Why of course, everyone is entitled to their opinions but to back it up with factual information makes it more credible, doesn't it?

"Today, linguists estimate that there may be as much as 58 percent cognates for a sample of 872 modern ASL and FSL words." (Lane, 1987:55).

We have evidence that Clerc was fluent not only in OFSL and Old Signed French but also was highly literate in French. It is likely that what Clerc taught Gallaudet was actually the modified system of signs that had been developed to teach deaf children French - old Signed French. The modifications they made were to adapt it to the grammar of English: signs were invented for English verb endings, articles, prepositions, etc. Thus, what Gallaudet and Clerc brought to American deaf education was an early form of "Signed English" based on the lexical forms of Old Signed French, which was itself based on OFSL.When they arrived in America, Gallaudet and Clerc began using their signed language in the classroom. In writings of the time, this system of signing was called "methodical signs." It wasn't long before the teachers began to note that while the students used methodical signs - what we are calling Old Signed English - in the classroom, they used another type of signed language in their interactions with each other."

Gallaudet (1819, quoted in Lane, 1980:126) wrote:

"A successful teacher of the deaf and dumb should be thoroughly acquainted both with their own peculiar mode of expressing their ideas by signs and also with that of expressing the same ideas by those methodical signs which in their arrangement correspond to the structure of written language. For the natural language of this singular class of beings has its appropriate style and structure. They use it in their unrestrained communication with each other, [it is marked by] great abruptness, ellipses, and inversion of expression. To take a familiar example "You must not eat that fruit, it will make you feel unwell" In [the deaf's] own language of signs, literally translated, it would be thus, "Fruit that you eat, you unwell, you eat no."

Gallaudet's recognition that the deaf had their own "natural language" was to be commended; however, it seems that, like l'Epée, he too failed to fully understand that this language was an independent, grammatical language. Gallaudet encouraged teachers to respect and learn this way of communicating, but he still insisted on comparing its structure to English and then noting that it is marked by an ellipsis (leaving out words) and inversion of expression (presumably, the fact that this language did not follow English word order).

This "natural signing" is Old American Sign Language. We may never know whether there was a commonly accepted variety or a high degree of local variation. What is clear is that the early methodical signs with their heritage in Old French Sign Language began to mix with the indigenous language which was already being used by deaf people in America. The result is what we know today as ASL.

In the century and three-quarters since these two languages first came into contact there has been much development. Both went through a period around the turn of the twentieth century when many people feared that the languages might be suppressed by the predominant oral method to the point where they would die out. In a particularly moving speech recorded on silent film in 1913, George W. Veditz, president of the National Association of the Deaf, made an emotional plea for all Deaf people to cherish and preserve their beloved signed languages as "the noblest gift God has given to the Deaf."

"Nora Ellen Groce's book, "Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language" traces the origin of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), an early sign language used on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where hereditary deafness was common. She traced MVSL back to County Kent in southern England. Groce found in "Samual Pepy's Diary" that sign language was used in the Kentish "weald" (woodland area). Vineyarders called their sign "Chilmark Sign Language" after the village of Chilmark where there was a good sized deaf community.

According to the About visitor, "Chilmark Sign Language was then taken to the Hartford School. It combined with French Sign Language (not De l'Epee's or Sicard's methodical signs). Groce's book doesn't mention this, but another source says that the signing community of New York also influenced the sign language at the Hartford school. So the convergence of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, French Sign Language and the New York signs converged to form the basis of ASL."

When studying about the origins of ASL, I have read somewhere that Indian Sign Language somewhat contributed to ASL but there is no hard evidence.

"In America, the Great Plains Indians developed a fairly extensive system of signing, but this was more for intertribal communication than for deaf people, and only vestiges of it remain today. However, it is interesting to note some similarities existing between Indian sign language and the present system.

Similarities between ISL and the present system? I am not sure about that. Hey Pure Deaf blogger, you have that book on Indian Sign Language and tell me if you see any similarities.

Then came the infamous Milan effect attempting to wipe out Old American Sign Language and to replace it with oralism. It affected and alternated the thoughts mostly to hearing and some deaf people perceiving that using methodical signs in English is acceptable and that ASL is not necessary. It looks like to me that Lois like many deaf people in her generation got caught in this mentality plantation.

About Deaf vs. Dead, it may sound alike to hard of hearing people but remember hearing people can hear the difference between "f" and "d". When checking on the list of words that sound alike, I have seen you're vs. your, affect vs. effect, too vs. two, etc. The point is there are more hearing people knowing the difference between dead vs. deaf than deaf vs. Deaf so I would not worry too much about mistaking us for dead! But let me tell you this, I have experimented on how people reacted when I said I can't hear vs. deaf. I find that when I said I can't hear, I find that hearing people speak louder as compared to when I say I am deaf, they resort to paper and pen.

Now about teaching deaf children to read, as a teacher, I find that sometimes when deaf students chose to sign word for word and fingerspell a certain word that already has a sign for it, to me, it signals a lack of comprehension in reading. We are responsible for introducing the books by bridging both languages that make sense to the child. Pictures are used as a reinforcement to what the story is saying. It is like handing a pair of chopsticks to a person who never saw it before. You go here eat with it. This person will be mishandling it then attempts to copy by observing but may not get it right immediately. If someone shows him how to do it, he will get it a lot faster. It goes the same with teaching children how to read. They have the tools but we as readers must show them how to use ASL as a language to teach English.



David said...


You are WONDERFUL. I am very glad you made many excellent points to clear out negative comments about Deaf and ASL.

Sometime ago, I mentioned about Hotchkiss, Gallaudet, others signed in old films at Gally library. They signed with almost no mouth movement. They signed ASL. I just found out that Samuel Greene, first Deaf teacher in Canada. He was from Maine and he attended Hartford, Conn. He met Laurent Clerc at American School for the Deaf. His classmate was Hotchkiss at Gallaudet University. Ontario School for the Deaf offered him a job as a teacher and Samuel Greene took it and moved to Canada. That is how we got ASL from him. Our ASL is just the same as anyone in USA.

Fantastic isn't it!


Aidan Mack said...

Thank you so much for your time to share with us. As always, you present a very good information. I thought it was your last time to talk about Deaf topic for the summer.. Wink! I know.. It is hard not to talk about it.. And it is very important to distribute right information.. Your heart is in right place. :o)

I was researching Harlan's Book today for a documentary film. Wow.. A very good book. I plan to do Vlog tomorrow about one part. Oh my god... When I read this book, I feel like I am seeing through Laurent Clerc 's eyes about his accomplishments, his struggles, his regrets, and many more..

Keep it up with good work. :o)


Oscar the Observer said...

Brilliantly said!

marisa said...

hi Barb,

Love your post, as always.

Re the deaf vs. death thing... Yes, to a hearing person, deaf and death sound a lot alike (/th/ and /f/ sound almost exactly alike). And unless they're familiar with deaf people and/or the Deaf world, they wouldn't be used to hearing or using the word "deaf" in conversation. But everybody dies, so we've heard the words dead and death much more often. That's my theory anyway. :)

On a related note, I just stumbled upon a goofy youtube film that makes a joke of ignorant hearing people who equate "deaf" with "dead," see "Dawn of the Deaf" at

It's an intentionally bad horror film where hearies are afraid of Deaf zombies (like the zombies in "Dawn of the Dead"). Seems some high school or college students made the short film as a project for their ASL class. And yes, their teacher is Deaf, and I'm sure they've learned about Deaf culture and perspectives (which is why they're making fun of clueless hearies).

Anyway, enjoy!

LaRonda said...

Hi Barb.

I'm having trouble seeing your video. It's cut in half. I only see half of your face.

I have quick time. I'm hosted by Videoserver like you. I'm not having problems seeing other clips. Hmmm...

Thought you would want to know.

I know i can always go view it on YouTube, but there seems to be a glitch with your page...

~ LaRonda

Karen Mayes said...

Great to watch your vlog and read your blog as usual. Ahhh... I did see the ytube as Marisa mentioned and it was funny.

It is fascinating to study how languages evolve. Even the dictionaries show the roots of the words (like "marry" [I just chose one word out of the Webster dictionary open on my lap, for an example... having nothing to do with ASL, so humor me for a bit], it is derived from Middle English marien, from Old French marier, from Latin maritare, from maritus.) To me, ASL has a lot of outside influences and even today, it is still being influenced.

Yup, I do notice Elizabeth "sounding out" the words in the reading, so I help out with asking her what the character meant by it, what happened, etc... she quickly picks it up and it helps develop the reading comprehension. I have the wonderful workbook in which she reads the short stories and she answers the questions about the stories.

The Ketchamized One said...


Lovely VLOG as always! I hope that one day, schools for the Deaf nationwide will take it upon themselves to teach the actual history of Deaf people-- Rather than a summary riddled with misinformation.