The Political Uses of Sign Language: The Case of the French Revolution

By Rosenfeld, Sophia | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Political Uses of Sign Language: The Case of the French Revolution


Rosenfeld, Sophia, Sign Language Studies


THE STORY OF THE ABBÉ DE L'ÉPÉE and the founding of the Paris Institute for the Deaf long ago entered the realm of legend. Competing versions of the story can be found in movies, paintings, novels, and memoirs, as well as scholarly accounts spanning more than two centuries. Even today, a modestly revised account of de l'Épée's achievements continues to provide a foundational "creation myth" for the discipline of Deaf history.

The basic facts are easily retold: In the early 17605, a French Jansenist cleric named Charles-Michel de l'Épée met two deaf sisters. Inspired by the idea of making these girls into "citizens" and "Christians," he set to work learning their natural language. Then, with their help, de l'Épée spent most of the decade trying to "perfect" this idiom, by which he meant expand it to represent abstract concepts important to religion and metaphysics, subject it to the rules of general grammar, and codify it. The result was what he labeled "methodical" sign language. It was also the establishment of a free school that eventually became the first national institution in the world for educating deaf people. One of the reasons de l'Épée's efforts remain so central to Deaf history is that they are so deeply connected to the founding of many of the greatest contemporary institutions for educating deaf people, including Gallaudet University, and to the methods and languages employed therein to this day.

However, one aspect of the legend of de l'Épée has attracted considerably less scholarly attention over the years. That is the unusual significance that his close contemporaries invested in this story of the invention of a formal sign language rooted in elementary, iconic gestures and of its use in the intellectual and social transformation of deaf individuals' lives. We have largely failed to recognize the impact de l'Épée's experiments had either on late eighteenth-century people's sense of the world or on their fates, especially as a revolution unfolded around them.

Obviously, interest in the education of deaf children was not new in the 17905. The questions of how best to instruct them and whether to use gestures as tools in this process go back to antiquity. Moreover, in the centuries before the French Revolution, many, many hearing people had had the experience of improvising means of communication and informal methods of instruction for family members, co-workers, and neighbors who either were born or became deaf in the course of their lives. But a qualitative as well as quantitative change in the discussion of deafness and communication occurred as the fame of de l'Épée's enterprise grew in the months that followed his death in late 1789. If you read the newspapers, memoirs, speeches, and political pamphlets produced during the French Revolution, you will not only notice that deaf people and deaf issues crop up everywhere. You will also discover that, in a wide variety of contexts, they take on a symbolic importance that you might not expect.1

Some aspects of the story of deaf people in the revolutionary era are well known. The opening of the French Revolution in 1789 marked the introduction of representative government in France in the form of an elected national assembly, and we know that the fate of de l'Épée's school was taken up and debated by many of the leading deputies to this body from that very first year. We know that many of those deputies (following an earlier wave of noted scientists, philosophers, and statesmen, including John Adams, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and Queen Marie-Antoinette) attended public sessions at the Paris Institute for the Deaf, as de l'Épée's school came to be known. We know that the revolutionary state printed and distributed their speeches in praise of de l'Épée and then the Abbé Sicard, his successor. We know that Jean Massieu and other deaf pupils at the Paris Institute were invited on several occasions both to plead for financial support for their school and to display their linguistic skills before the whole National Assembly. …

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