It’s estimated that one million people utilize American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary mode of communication — and ASL is just one of over 300 forms of sign language in existence. Indeed, sign language is one of the most important resources for any person who is deaf or experiencing severe hearing loss, and its history tells the remarkable story of communication that transcends the boundaries of words. Though we cannot know the exact moment sign language was born, we can trace its roots back to the first century and understand its origins from this point forward. Read on if you’ve ever wondered about the history of sign language.
One of the first recorded mentions of sign language appears around 60 AD. in the Bible. The book of Luke recounts the story of Zacharias, who is made mute and must then make signs in order to communicate. This story is an early narrative of sign language’s importance, and it precedes the emergence of monastic sign languages in the Middle Ages. Though many do not consider this to be authentic sign language, it offers another example of ancient communication made through gestures and motions. Evidence suggests that these early examples were based on manually signed alphabets, meaning that users spelled words with their fingers rather than signing to represent individual objects and ideas.
Native American tribes offer some of the first known evidence of sign language that was based on signed systems rather than fingerspelling. The Plains Indian Sign Language, for example, was first documented in the late 1700s and indicates that the foundations of modern sign language were beginning to develop. This development continued when Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet established American Sign Language in 1817. Its formation was reportedly inspired by French Sign Language, and some speculate that Gallaudet had encountered Plains Indian Sign Language, too.
Since its establishment in the 19th century, ASL has become one of the most prevalent forms of sign language in use throughout the world. The first school to use ASL and exclusively serve deaf students — the American School for the Deaf — was permanently established in 1817. The school served as the foundation for the development of ASL and the training of ASL educators. It is still in existence, educating students who are deaf or experiencing serious hearing loss. ASL has evolved since its incarnation and now incorporates a range of expressive modes beyond hand signaling. The language also relies on facial expressions and body movements to convey meaning along with signs.
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Sign language is one of the most emotive and expressive forms of communication currently in practice. This is due in large part to a history that’s rooted in diversity and compassion. If you are dealing with hearing loss and looking for solutions, HEAR Center is here to help. We specialize in audiologic, hearing aid, and speech and language services. We were established in 1954 to serve the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and specialize in identifying babies and children with hearing loss.
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