By Adan R. Penilla, Angela Lee Taylor

The roots of American Sign Language (ASL) run fairly deep. Although early Greek writings refer to manual communication, no one knows whether those writings refer to just a few gestures or an actual alternative language using signs. Hippocrates studied deafness, and Socrates believed that it was a natural occurrence for Deaf people to communicate manually.

Juan Pablo Benet (1579–1629) wrote the first book, published in 1620, on how to teach Deaf people. He incorporated gestures, fingerspelling, writing, and speech.

You can find sign languages in every country throughout the world. Some countries, such as Canada and the United States, have similar sign languages, and their spoken languages are also similar. However, this isn’t always the case. ASL is unique among the world’s sign languages because it has had many influences and has influenced many sign languages of the world.

When and how ASL began

Many people believe that ASL was strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc in the early 1800s at the American Asylum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Another influence of ASL’s origin goes back long before the arrival of Gallaudet and Clerc. In the 17th century, Deaf people were living in the United States. They lived in their own communities on Martha’s Vineyard and made their livings as farmers and fishermen. Most of these inhabitants were descendants of people who’d moved to America from England. Two hundred years later, their descendants were still living there and attending the American School for the Deaf under Clerc and Gallaudet. Many believe that the signs brought to America by these educators and the signs used by the Martha’s Vineyard population are largely responsible for today’s ASL.

ASL isn’t related to English, although it borrows from English — as many spoken languages do. ASL has a word order that’s different from English, and it has its own idioms, jokes, and poetry — all unrelated to English. People who support ASL believe that anything can be taught in ASL because it’s a language guided by properties.

Sign is visually based. An object, such as a person, animal, or thing, needs to be understood by two parties before any information can be signed concerning the subject. Some people believe that this is the natural process for language. Many languages are based on this idea — it’s the noun-verb rule. You need to name an object before you can discuss it.

The origins of deaf education

Thomas Gallaudet (1787–1851) was a minister and an educator whose neighbor, Alice Cogswell, was a 9-year-old Deaf child. He traveled in Europe to study educational methods for teaching the Deaf. While in the British Isles, Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc and two of his companions, who invited him to France to study the educational methods of teaching the Deaf using manual communication. He sailed back to the United States with Clerc, and they raised money and established the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Alice Cogswell was one of its first graduates.