New Perspectives on the History of American Sign Language

By Shaw, Emily; Delaporte, Yves | Sign Language Studies, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

New Perspectives on the History of American Sign Language


Shaw, Emily, Delaporte, Yves, Sign Language Studies


ASSERTING THAT FRENCH, Spanish, or Romanian derive from Latin is easy; to establish proof of such a connection, as philologists of Roman languages have done in historical phonetics, one must retrace the evolution of forms and meanings to uncover the Latin etymologies of thousands of contemporary words. The same can be said about the relationship between American Sign Language (ASL) and French Sign Language (LSF) . It is well known that Laurent Clerc introduced LSF to the United States beginning in 1817. Linguists and anthropologists have long argued that LSF influenced the majority of the ASL lexicon (e.g., Woodward and DeSantis 1977; Woodward 1978, 1979; Lane 1992). In more recent years, American linguists have begun exploring this historical relationship as it concerns the gesture-sign connection (e.g., Shaffer 2002; Wilcox 2004). A comprehensive exploration of the effects of this affiliation on contemporary American signs, though, has yet to be conducted by researchers familiar with the history of both LSF and ASL. After years of research on historical documents and dialects in deaf communities in France and the United States, we present here preliminary data that help to fill this gap. Ultimately, these data will culminate in an etymological dictionary of ASL.1

While much is known about the events surrounding the spawning of the Deaf community in the United States, very little is known about just what type of language Gallaudet and Clerc used to communicate with their first generations of students. Since this was the moment when ASL began to crystallize, it is surely the place where a historical linguist would find the origins of most of the lexicon. This task is not so simple, though, as the backgrounds of the deaf people who originally attended the first American school were diverse: Some students were older, some had never used a sign language before, some came from deaf families (where they were already signing), and many were children from Martha's Vineyard, where a long-established sign language was already in use (Lane 1984). Thus, to record the history of ASL, we must consider historical documents of LSF, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) , and the signs used by the first students and teachers at the Hartford school in addition to emblematic gestures that hearing people used in the United States and in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research on MVSL and no written records of signs used by students and teachers at the school, as far as we can tell. So we are left to consider historical records of LSF and ASL, in addition to the gestures used by earlier populations of hearing people, to paint as coherent a picture as possible of the history of the lexicon. While we cannot account for the entire lexicon in this work, we are able to tackle a great deal of it with what we have.

A vast variety of forces triggers word creation in any language. These influences can be categorized in ways that help us understand how words and signs come to be. Of course, over time, words can experience influences from multiple sources, oftentimes resulting in a reinterpretation of the origins as representing something wholly different from their earliest etymons, or roots (we will see this in the case of the American sign time). The history of signs in ASL is unique in that it necessarily includes the history of LSF - one that developed in a geographically and culturally distant place. For the purposes of this article, we focus on the impact of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French culture, in addition to that of the educators of deaf children in French deaf schools, in hopes of underscoring their relevance to the history of ASL.

We gathered our data on the LSF etymons in this article from descriptions and/or illustrations of historical texts by Abbé de l'Épée (1784), Abbé Ferrand (ca. 1785), Abbé Sicard (1808), Baron Degérando (1827), Abbé Jamet (ca. …

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