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History of Sign Language

Throughout the world, deaf people have developed visual language. The language used by deaf people in the United States is a blend of signs brought from France early in the 19th century. Some signs were already in use in this country. With no formal sign language in existence here at that time, home, local, and French signs blended together to become the American sign language, now considered to be one of the most refined and complete sign systems in the world. Although American Indians used signs for intertribal communication, this does not appear to have influenced the sign system that evolved among deaf persons.

Dr. Mason Cogsewell, was particularly interested in communicating with the deaf, since his own daughter, Alice, was deaf and had been taught on an experimental basis by a youth minister, Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a graduate of Yale University.

As a result, Dr. Gallaudet was sent abroad to investigate methods then being used in England. In London, Dr. Gallaudet met Abbe Sicard, who invited him to cross the channel and visit his school, which had been founded in Paris in 1755 by the Abbe de L'Epee.

The Abbe, who is said to be the inventor of the French Sign Language, eventually published a volume describing both his sign system and his method of educating the deaf. After Dr. Gallaudet had spent several months studying educational methods as well as signs, he was ready to return to America. Accompanying him was a young deaf instructor from the French school, Laurent Clerc, who had proven most helpful and who agreed to assist in the new American School.

The first permanent school for the deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Many hears later, after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet had seen the establishment of a number of schools for the deaf people across the United States, he envisioned a college. This dream was passed on to his son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, who was responsible for establishing Gallaudet College, the first and only college for deaf students, located in Washington, The charter for the college was signed in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Finger spelling, the use of hand positions to represent the letters of the alphabet, is considered a vital and historical element of manual communication. The positions of the fingers of the hand do, to some extent, resemble the printed letters of the alphabet. Illustrations of the manual alphabet have been found to exist early in the Christian era. Latin Bibles of the 10th century show drawings of such hand positions and it is known that persons who lived in enforced silence, such as monks of the Middle Ages, used finger spelling as a means of communication. Most European countries used an alphabet that requires the use of two hands. Today, each country that has a manual alphabet uses its own version, which is therefore understood only by users of that particular system.

Signs usually represent ideas and not single words. Many signs are iconic, that is, they use a visual image for signing the idea. Most clearly falling into this category are animals, for example, deer (the antlers), elephant (the trunk), donkey (the ears), and the goat (the beard and horns). Signs are also represented by actions, such as the following: milk, coffee, love, grow.

Other signs are arbitrary and although the originators may have reasons for forming or moving a sign in a particular way these reasons are unknown today. It is interesting to note that many of the older signs have remained as originally created even though the connection to the origin no longer exists. One example of this is the sign toast, represented by placing a fork into the bread in order to hold it over the flame although an attempt was made to change this to represent the use of an electric toaster, deaf signers continued to use the old form.

The sign for the deaf was originally made by pointing to the ear and the month, probably to match the now outdated terms '' deaf and dumb'' or deaf mute.'' Although a change has been made a point to the ear and signing closed, many deaf people continue to use the old sign.

The question is often asked whether sign language is universal. Although signs are used in many countries, each has developed its own system, which has been standardized to some extent within that country. In recent years an international sign language has been developed that crosses national barriers and permits communication between deaf persons of many countries. This language, sometimes called Gestuno, has been found useful for international events, such as conferences and Olympic Games for the Deaf.

Persons knowing the language of signs find they can cross the language barrier more easily using signs with a deaf person then using the spoken language with a hearing person. In educational circles the language of signs has now gained respectability and a number of colleges and universities offer credit courses. Several also accept proficiency in signs to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Sign language is viewed by some as a new art form and is used in performances by the National Theater of the deaf, a professional drama group, as a means of presenting deaf people and their language to hearing the world. Also being introduced is signed interpretation of music, a beautiful and expressive means of portraying the lyrics, emotions and the rhythm of the songs.

Both deaf and hearing people are enjoying new experiences through communication in the language of signs, making it possible for them to live together with better understanding and mutual enrichment. Any family with a hearing impaired child that is learning to sign appreciates our ten-DVD Sign Language course, so that all members of the family can learn to communicate with the child.


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