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ASL: A brief description

Let me start by sharing with you my definition of ASL:

"American Sign Language is a visually perceived language based on a naturally evolved system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the body, along with non-manual markers such as facial expressions, head movements, shoulder raises, mouth morphemes, and movements of the body." 

Now let's look at a couple of other definitions.  According to we have:

American Sign Language  
n. Abbr. ASL

The primary sign language used by deaf and hearing-impaired people in the United States and Canada, devised in part by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet on the basis of sign language in France. Also called Ameslan.

A quick trip to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary ( and we get:

Main Entry: American Sign Language
Function: noun
Date: 1960
: a sign language for the deaf in which meaning is conveyed by a system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the upper body

I've also seen this definition show up in many places:

"American Sign Language is a visual-gestural language used by 500,000 members of the North American Deaf community."

Here is a variation on that same theme:

"American Sign Language is a visual-gestural language used primarily by members of the North American Deaf community."

Now let's discuss those definitions a bit.

Did you notice the date of that entry from Merriam-Webster?  1960!  ASL hasn't been "recognized" as a language for very long has it?  Oh sure, ASL has been used in  America since the early 1800's (and earlier if you include the signing that was being done in America prior to Thomas Gallaudet bringing Laurent Clerc from France), but it wasn't until 1960 that "experts" started recognizing it as a full-blown autonomous language.

We should say "at least" 500,000 people use ASL.  That is an OLD statistic from the 1980's.  My estimate is more along the lines of: 2 million people are using ASL on a daily basis and at least 500,000 of those people are using it as their primary means of communication.  Millions more people know "some" sign language and use it "once in a while."  For example, a grandmother of a deaf child.  She may have taken a six-week community education course and now she knows just enough to offer her grandson candy and cookies.  

"ASL is a visually perceived, gesture-based language." That means it is a language that is expressed through the hands and face and is perceived through the eyes.  It isn't just waving your hands in the air.  If you furrow your eyebrows, tilt your head, glance in a certain direction, twist your body a certain way, puff your cheek, or any number of other "inflections" --you are adding or changing meaning in ASL.  A "visual gestural" language carries just as much information as an oral/aural (mouth/ear) language.

Is ASL limited to just the United States and Canada? 
No.  ASL is also used in varying degrees in the Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Zaire, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, Benin, Togo, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and many other places. (Source:  Grimes, Barbara F. (editor), (1996). "Languages of USA" Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 13th Edition. Institute of Linguistics.)  

Is ASL a universal language?  Nope.  Not even close.  Those countries I just  mentioned also have their own signed languages.  ASL is the dominant signed language in North America, plus it is used to some extent in quite a few other countries, but it is certainly not understood by Deaf people everywhere.


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