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American Sign Language:  History

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American Sign Language is not English on the Hands


By Collin Matthew Belt
18 July 2013

It is a common misconception in the North American Hearing community that American Sign Language is a derivative of English, and therefore not a language by itself. However, the truth is that American Sign Language (commonly abbreviated as ASL) originated independently of English linguistic influence, and is in fact its own language with its own set of rules. Part of this misunderstanding can be explained by the translation method of glossing ASL signs with English words, and the practice of Signed English to communicate with those not familiar with ASL. However, because of its differences from spoken English, ASL is a unique language whose communication style must be understood independently.

ASL can trace its origins back to the first school for the Deaf in America, the American School for the Deaf, which was founded in 1817 by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.  Clerc was a teacher of French Sign Language brought to America by Gallaudet in order to educate American students. The school was fundamental in the development of ASL, which emerged from not only the teachings of Gallaudet and Clerc, but also from the Deaf students who attended there (Stewart, Stewart, & Little 2007).

The school provided an environment that enabled Deaf students to interact with other Deaf people, frequently for the first time in their lives, so many of the signs they taught each other were indigenous to the United States. As these signs mixed with those taught by their instructors, their language soon became "no longer identifiable as French Sign Language," resulting in two languages that shared some signs and structures, but that were distinctly different from one another.

The example set by the American School for the Deaf became ubiquitous throughout the United States, and as more schools for the Deaf were founded (often employing Deaf teachers who had been educated in other schools for the Deaf), soon these signs became commonly used in the Deaf community. While the schools were not responsible for the development of every sign (that responsibility must also be shared with its origins in French Sign Language), they were instrumental in making their use commonplace in North America (Stewart, Stewart, & Little 2007).

Because of their distinctly separate origins, the methods ASL utilizes to convey meaning are entirely different from the methods employed in English speaking. Some who have not studied ASL may mistakenly think that its sign sequences are patterned after spoken English sentences, but since the two languages are independent of one another, they are entirely unique. In spoken English, meaning is produced by a series of words "produced by actions within the vocal tract that result in sounds perceived through audition," whereas in ASL, meaning is produced by using signs "produced by actions of the hands, arms, face, and head that produce signs perceived visually." Because of this distinction, ASL is able to express meaning in ways that spoken English cannot. This has lead ASL to develop different methods of expression (Liddell 2003).

These differing methods have manifested themselves in many facets of dialog. For example, pluralization is often expressed in spoken English through the adding of prefixes and suffixes. While this does occur in ASL, it is very rare, as it can also be done so many other ways, such as signing a quantifier sign, reduplicating the sign, or incorporating a number directly into the sign. Time is also expressed differently in ASL. In English, tenses are amended to verbs to indicate when they occurred; in ASL there is an "imaginary time line running from behind the speaker's body (the past) [...] out away from the body stretching into the future." This line can be used to demonstrate that the sign being performed relates to a specific point in time (Costello 1994).

One of the reasons for the confusion surrounding ASL's identity is the practice of glossing signs with English words. While a necessary and useful translation method, assigned word glosses are often "inadequate and approximate," as so much of the meaning surrounding a sign depends on the context in which it is placed. Furthermore, word glosses may "mislead one to suppose that the sign and word are grammatical as well as semantic counterparts," but this would be an incorrect assumption, as ASL uses "a different system of syntax." Word order between spoken English and ASL differs significantly, so much so that there is a distinction drawn between ASL and "Signed English" (Valli, Clayton, Lucas, Mulrooney 2005).

Signed English is a way of using gestures and signs to "represent specific English words." It closely follows spoken English syntax and style; incorporates ASL signs wherever possible; and invents signs for words that don't exist in ASL such as "the," "an," and "a." Any other word can be communicated through the use of fingerspelling. Signed English is frequently used as a way for ASL signers to communicate with others who may be less familiar with ASL and its divergent syntax. While Signed English and ASL share many of the same signs, there is a distinct difference between the two: Signed English is a
variation of English expressed visually, while ASL is its own language (Bornstein, Luczak, Saulnier, Hamilton, and Miller 1983).

At a first glance, it's easy to look at the intertwining of English and ASL and assume that the latter is based on the former. The common translation method of glossing ASL signs with English words and the practice of Signed English can add to the confusion. However, ASL has a very unique origin story, and vastly different communication styles and syntax differences from English. From this we can conclude that ASL stands apart as a fascinating case of a new language originating in recent times.


Stewart D., Stewart E., & Little J. (2007). American Sign Language: The Easy Way. Hauppage, NY:Barron's Educational Series. Print.

Liddell S. (2003). Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Print.

Costello E. (1994). American Sign Language Dictionary, New York, NY: Random House. Print.

Valli C., Ceil L., and Mulrooney K. (2005). Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction. Washington, D.C.: Clerc. Print.

Bornstein H., Luczak K., Saulnier L., Hamilton, Miller R. (1983). The Comprehensive Signed English Dictionary. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet College. Print.

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