"For Hearing People Only" by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan. Rochester, New York: Deaf
Life Press, 1993
What is ASL?
by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan
American Sign Language (also called ASL or, inaccurately,
"Ameslan") is not "bad English," "broken English," "short English," or
kind of English. Nor is it Morse Code, or fingerspelling, or pantomime.
ASL is a unique language with its own grammatical
rules and syntax (sentence structure), and is every bit as precise, versatile,
and subtle as English. In some ways, it's even more so.
It's easy enough to describe what ASL isn't. But
there is no satisfactory definition of exactly what ASL is. Some Deaf people
maintain that there can be no universally acceptable, satisfactory-to-all
definition of ASL; others claim that there is (or can be). This is a subject
of some controversy. Where to draw the line between what's acceptable and
unacceptable ASL? Every user seems to have a different opinion!
ASL has evolved from a blend of Old French Sign
Language and what's now called "Old American Sign Language," which has
been traced to the "dialect" used in the communities of Chilmark and West
Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard. Some sort of native sign language was being
used well over a century before Laurent Clerc brought French Sign Language
to the States in 1817.*
ASL, in other words, is a hybrid of FSL and an
indigenous sign language. Many ASL signs were borrowed from FSL, but some
have always been "American."
At any rate, ASL has developed quite independently
of English. Its structure and vocabulary owe nothing to English, or to
British Sign Language. Just like any other modern, living and ever-changing
language, ASL continues to evolve. Iconic (pictorial or mime-like) signs
gradually become more abstract, more arbitrary. New signs are gradually
introduced; old signs are altered or dropped. ASL possesses regional variations
(dialects), slang, and fad expressions. There are also puns, word-play
(like handshape-rhymes), and plenty of creative humor.
ASL has been the precious heritage of the Deaf
com- munity, whose users have nonetheless suffered from widespread prejudice
in the Hearing world. Not so long ago, Deaf children were discouraged (if
not prohibited) from using ASL even in schools for the deaf, and adults
were ashamed to be seen Signing in public. They were made to feel that
ASL was strictly inferior to English, and communicating in Sign was not
socially acceptable. (Some "well-meaning" hearing teachers considered it
"animal-like."). Happily, we've made progress against such destructively
ignorant attitudes, but sentiment against ASL still exists, and deaf children
still are discouraged from making ASL their first language.
Linguists have only recently begun to pay serious
attention to ASL as a language, but ASL has already begun to enrich American
culture through theatre, poetry, song, Sign Mime, and storytelling. A new
ASL literature-on-videotape is in the making. Even to those who don't understand
it, ASL can be enthralling to watch. Its popularity is steadily increasing,
and it has been (arguably) labeled the third most widely-used language
in the United States. ASL is a beautiful and expressive language that is
finally beginning to get the respect it deserves.
Did you know that...
*These communities in Martha's Vineyard had an unusually high incidence
of hereditary deafness for many generations. Not only did deaf and hearing
residents use Sign with each other, but hearing residents used it among
themselves when no deaf people were around. Clerc (1785-1869) was the first
Deaf teacher of the deaf in the United States, and co-founder of the American
School for the Deaf at Hartford, Connecticut, the first school of its kind
people using ASL can communicate comfortably with each other . . . much
farther than the loudest shout can carry!?
Sign Language is so handy it's used in underwater communication?
while whispering can be picked up by microscopic bugging devices, sign
language is bug-proof? (CIA take notice)
gorillas (and chimpanzees, to some extent) have been taught how to communicate
in Sign? (Paradoxically, those who support its use by animals may not favor
its use by humans!)
What is ASL? from "For Hearing People Only" by Matthew S. Moore
and Linda Levitan. Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press, 1993. pp. 29-31.