The History of Sign Language

When did Sign Language begin? Who taught the deaf people Sign Language? How did Sign Language begin in America? These questions and others will be answered from our research about the History of Sign Language. It is good to know how and why Sign Language began. Deaf people and workers with the deaf people need to know the origin of their language.

Sign language is very old. From earliest recorded history, gestures have been used for communication between groups of different languages and cultures. The use of the formalized language of signs, however, has been gradual, with the first attempt to do so occurring in the latter part of the 16th century. Until the 16th century, the deaf people were considered uneducable. They were scorned, put aside, and even feared. They were thought to be incapable of reasoning or having ideas. Some even thought the deaf people were possessed of demons. Parents were ashamed of their deaf children and hid them from the public.

Spain – In the 16th century, an Italian physician, Girolamo Cardano, stated that the hearing of words was not necessary for the understanding of ideas. He elaborated a method for teaching the deaf, but it was never put into use. However, his ideas paved the way for dispelling the attitude that the deaf were incapable of learning. It was in Spain that the first successful attempts to educate the deaf were made. A Spanish man, Pedro Ponce de Leon, succeeded in educating deaf children of several noble Spanish families who were heirs of family estates. Apparently, Ponce de Leon taught these children to read and write. The first book containing a manual alphabet was published by Juan Pablo de Bonet in 1620.

France – It was in France that the public education of deaf began. Abbe Charles de L’eppe in 1755, founded the first public school for the deaf. Besides being considered the father of public education of the deaf, he is also considered the father of the language of signs. He was convinced that the language of signs was the natural method of deaf people, and their education should be based on it. But he also recognized that the crude signs used by deaf people of that day could not be used as an educational tool. So he set himself to refining and developing this language of signs into a full language. Our present day Sign Language is derived from his system.

GermanySamuel Heinicke in Germany originated another method to communicate with deaf people. It was the Oral Method of teaching a deaf child through speech and speech-reading. This is known as the German method of teaching deaf children. Sign Language was absolutely forbidden. This started a controversy that persists to this day. What is the best method for teaching deaf children?

America – How did it all begin? Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a minister, became the developer of American education of the deaf, and founder of the first school for the deaf in America. Why did Gallaudet show an interest in deaf people? One day, Thomas H. Gallaudet was approached by Dr. Mason Cogswell, who had a deaf daughter, Alice. Gallaudet was touched and impressed by a 12 year old deaf girl. He dropped his hat to the ground and had her repeat the word “hat.” She tried, and then he knew that deaf people could be taught. Dr. Cogswell asked Gallaudet to journey to Europe and study the methods developed there to teach the deaf. He went to England first to study their methods, meaning to combine the best of both methods, oral and manual, but this was unacceptable to the English educators. They wished him to use only their methods.

Gallaudet meets Sicard – About this time, Abbe Sicard arrived on a lecture tour in London with two of his most famous deaf pupils. Gallaudet was so impressed by the demonstrations that he abandoned his negotiations in England. Gallaudet decided to go to Paris to study with Sicard. After studying in Paris for a few months he returned to America, bringing Lauret Clerc with him. Lauret Clerc became the first teacher of the deaf in the United States. Together they founded the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Alice Cogswell was one of the first students. A father concerned about his deaf daughter helped to begin Sign Language in America. Today, the school is known as American School for the Deaf. By 1863, twenty-two schools for deaf people had been established. In 1864, the first deaf college, Gallaudet College (University) in Washington, DC was founded. It was named after Thomas H. Gallaudet. It all started because of a little deaf girl, named Alice. From this beginning, Sign Language became the national language for deaf in America. It has been developed and refined until it is now a classical, beautiful and picturesque language of gesture by which the great majority of deaf communicate with each other and hearing people who learn their Sign Language.


Sign Language is not using signs for the English Language, but it is a language the same as other foreign languages. Sign Language is the natural language for deaf people. Today it is the fourth most used language in America after English, Spanish and Italian. It is idiomatic, it incorporates pantomimes, it is individualistic and sometimes confusing to a beginner. But it is always interesting, and a student of the language of signs will find it greatly rewarding as he progresses to better communicate with the deaf people. Hearing people are learning the language to become interpreters, teachers and preachers in the deaf world. American Sign Language is a visual language, so it cannot be written, but must be signed and seen. More than 50% of the language is not words, but gestures and movements.

Three Deaf Worlds

Deaf people are normal people who just have a hearing problem. Their handicap is communicational not mental. Educators have been divided for many years concerning how best to teach deaf people. In the early 70 -80’s, I traveled to many schools for the deaf. In some schools I was not permitted to spell or sign, in some schools I could spell words only and not sign, a few permitted me to use sign language. But all the kids openly used signs with each other. In those days, teachers did not use Sign Language, but the Oral method. Later, the deaf people developed their own language of ASL, “American Sign Language.” Today the deaf schools use SEE “Signing Exact English” to help the deaf children learn to read better English. This method is slowly changing to ASL which has its own vocabulary, idioms, grammar and syntax — different from English. This means there are three worlds of the Deaf.

1. The older deaf people who were not permitted to use signs, but taught signs to each other. I call this language “Sign Slanguage” because it will have much spelling and lots of home-made signs.

2. The young adults who prefer “ASL.”

3. The young people who are taught to use “SEE.”

A good rule to follow is , If they do not understand the way you sign, then sign the way they understand. Sign Language has made it possible for deaf people to fulfill their life and place in this society. Sign Language is the greatest thing to ever happen to the deaf world. It has made it possible to educate and evangelize the deaf people, and for the deaf people to have a better life now and forever! Deaf people in America should be grateful for their opportunities and the availability of education. Many deaf people in other countries do not have this privilege. It all began with a little twelve year old deaf girl by the name of Alice Cogswell and a concerned man named Thomas H. Gallaudet in 1817.

Researched and edited by Ted Camp, Director, SWM

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