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Sign Language

Sign language is a means of communication via movement of the body, especially of the arms and hands. Sign language’s ability to bridge vocal linguistic gaps makes it a unique means of communication among languages.

The history of sign language development is an interesting one and most likely dates back to the time before any spoken languages were established.

Why Sign Language?

Sign language is used when verbal communication is undesirable or impossible.

Communication between two individuals may be impossible for any number of reasons. Two people who speak different languages and who are unable to converse verbally may resort to basic gestures to communicate, for example, while a deaf-mute individual may learn an intricate system of sign language that allows him to communicate with others non-verbally.

Early History of Sign Language

The history of sign language is thought to be older than any known form of verbal speech.

A basic type of sign language may include any number of basic gestures, including shrugged shoulders, pointed fingers and facial expressions. In many respects, sign language is a global language; basic gestures such as the pointing of a finger are capable of being understood by individuals around the world, whether or not they speak the same language.

The Plains Indians of North America

A notable example of early sign language development use can be found in the case of the Plains Indians who inhabited early-19th century America. Using a fixed system of hand and finger positions to convey specific ideas, different tribes of Plains Indians were able to communicate with one another.

A cupped hand leaping away from the speaker could resemble a running deer, for example, while two fingers straddling the other hand’s index finger would represent a person on horseback. Two fingers spread in front of the mouth resembled a snake’s tongue, a symbol used to convey the idea of lies or treachery, while the mimed action of brushing long hair signified a woman.

Such basic symbols became so familiar that they could be combined to form complex narratives, to convey messages, or even to enter into a dialogue with individuals who had knowledge of the signing system. The majority of the Plains Indians tribes were knowledgeable in this method of sign language, and it was commonly used.

Other Examples of Early Sign Language Use

It is believed that processes of sign language development similar to that of the Plains Indians also took place among other early inhabitants of North America, Africa and Australia, generally as a means of communicating between individuals from different linguistic backgrounds.

Another intriguing case found in the history of sign language is its use in communication between the Japanese and Chinese. Although the Japanese and Chinese share many characters to write their respective languages, the pronunciation of these sounds is so different that the two languages are essentially unintelligible. However, by tracing the figures of mutually comprehensible characters on his palm, a Japanese-speaking individual would be capable of effectively communicating with a native Chinese speaker.

Early History of Sign Language Development for Use by Deaf-Mutes

In general, early societies considered individuals such as deaf-mutes to be mentally challenged and impossible to educate. There are but a few known cases of people caring for disabled individuals from ancient Greece and Rome. For the most part, early societies did not attempt to develop formal educational systems for individuals like deaf-mutes, in some cases even shunning them.

A shift in attitudes toward disabled individuals occurred in the Middle Ages when the church began to establish organizations that provided care for both the physically and mentally impaired. Still, it would not be until the Renaissance that efforts were made to develop a special means of educating impaired individuals.

Later Sign Language Development: The Renaissance and Onward

The Renaissance provides a number of interesting cases of attempts to educate deaf-mute individuals, an important aspect of sign language history. In mid-1500s Spain, Pedro Ponce de Leon succeeded in teaching deaf pupils to read, write and speak. In 1620 another Spaniard, Juan Pablo Bonet, published a book on the subject of educating deaf individuals. Around the same time the Englishman John Bulwer wrote about his own experiences teaching deaf-mutes both to speak and to read lips.

In the early 18th century, Abbe Charles-Michel de L’Epee, carried out similar work in France, where he developed a physical sign language for deaf individuals. Similar work was carried out in Germany, where Friedrich Moritz Hill developed the “natural method” of sign language teaching in the 19th century. The combined efforts of such early educations eventually led to the oral method of instruction that would become the accepted means of sign language teaching around the world.

Pioneer of French Sign Language: Abbe Charles-Michel de L’Epee

The work of L’Epee was a landmark in sign language development. The system L’Epee devised allowed for the spelling-out of individual words using a manual alphabet, as well as for the expression of entire concepts using simple physical signs. This was a great jump forward from previous attempts to educate the hearing impaired, which had focused on teaching them how to speak verbally.

Interestingly, there was a French sign language community in place before L’Epee’s work. According to French author Pierre Desloges’s 1779 book “Observations of a Deaf-Mute,” L’Epee learned the rudimentary sign language system already in place among France’s deaf-mutes from deaf people living in France at the time. He then went on to further develop, standardize and teach the method.

Sign Language Today

L’Epee’s system would become the basis for the French Sign Language (FSL) that is still used in France to this day. L’Epee’s system would also become the basis for American Sign Language (ASL), as well as many other national sign languages around the world. Today sign language is widely used as a means of communication among hearing-impaired individuals. The French and American sign languages are two of the best known; however, other sign language systems exist around the world.


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