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Home > Campuses & Centers > Annandale > Academic Divisions > Languages and Literature > American Sign Language and English Interpretation > History of American Sign Language

History of American Sign Language

ASL has its primary linguistic roots in France and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. While Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc are frequently credited with importing American Sign Language from France, that does not begin to tell the whole story.

From at least the early 1700s until well into the 1800s, there was a very high incidence of hereditary deafness over many generations on Martha’s Vineyard, specifically in the towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury. Deaf and hearing residents of these communities used sign language. Signing was as accepted as spoken English, and hearing residents were known to use it even when there were no Deaf people present. This language exerted a powerful influence on the development of ASL, and was also influenced by (and eventually absorbed into) ASL as it became the dominant language of Deaf communities throughout the United States. Martha’s Vineyard signs are still used today as part of ASL, though there is no longer a large Deaf/signing community there.

In the early 1800s, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell and his wife had a daughter named Alice who contracted spotted fever and became deaf at a young age. At that time, there was no educational system for deaf children in the United States and the options were limited. The Cogswells could ship their young daughter overseas or have her institutionalized. They did neither. Instead, Dr. Cogswell began to research other options, searching for a solution. Fortunately, the Cogswells had a neighbor named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet noticed then-9-year-old Alice and felt pity for this deaf child who had no real language (and limited ability to communicate with the people around her). He soon taught her to write the word “hat” in the dirt with a stick.

Gallaudet and Dr. Cogswell agreed that Alice could be educated, and that Gallaudet would be able to tutor her, but they also realized that there must be other children in similar situations. Thus was born the idea of creating a school for the deaf. At that time, there were 84 deaf people known to live in Connecticut, alone. Clearly there was a need for such a school. Gallaudet was selected to travel to Europe and learn whatever he could about Deaf education. The goal was to establish a school in Hartford, Connecticut that would serve to educate Deaf children from around the country. Initially, Gallaudet went to Great Britain to seek advice from the Braidwood school, however the administrators refused to part with their teachings easily. They demanded that Gallaudet stay several years and that the Braidwoods receive financial compensation for each child educated using their methods. Gallaudet refused to agree to those terms. While in London, he attended a public demonstration by the abbé Sicard on the French system of educating the Deaf. The abbé had two of his students with him: Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc. In this demonstration, the audience was allowed to ask questions of the students, the abbé interpreted the questions in sign language, and the men wrote their answers. Gallaudet was extremely impressed by what he saw.

The abbé invited Gallaudet to visit his school, the French National Institute, and in 1816 Gallaudet bid farewell to England and sailed for Paris, where he was welcomed. Gallaudet quickly realized that he needed more time than he had in order to master everything he would need to know in order to effectively teach deaf people. He was, however, nearly out of money, and had to arrange his passage home. Laurent Clerc agreed to accompany Gallaudet back to the United States, and after much negotiation with the abbé Sicard, who initially refused to allow Clerc to leave, they settled upon a term of 3 years for Clerc to remain in the United States helping Gallaudet establish the new school.

Clerc and Gallaudet sailed aboard the Mary August for nearly two months. During their voyage, Clerc tutored Gallaudet in LSF (French Sign Language) and Gallaudet tutored Clerc in written English. Upon their return, they set out to raise funds for the school. On April 15, 1817, the American Asylum for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened its doors in Hartford, Connecticut. Alice Cogswell was the first student to enroll. In his classes, Clerc used the signs he had learned in France as well as fingerspelling, but quickly discovered that his students were changing the sighs to suit their preferences. Many of them had developed their own signing systems at home, and a significant percentage knew the Martha’s Vineyard sign language, so they adapted what they were learning at the American Asylum, and American Sign Language quickly evolved into a unique language used both inside and outside the classroom. The students took it home with them, and began to use it in their lives outside of school, and a new language was born, as was formal Deaf Education in the United States.

In the end, Laurent Clerc remained in Hartford for the rest of his life, visiting France only a few times. In 1818, he married one of his former students. Gallaudet also married a Deaf woman, Sophia Fowler. Gallaudet’s youngest and oldest children carried on their father’s mission. His oldest son, Thomas Gallaudet, became and Episcopal minister and, although hearing himself, established St. Ann’s, the first Deaf church in the United States. Edward Miner Gallaudet, also hearing, founded what is now Gallaudet University, the world’s only four-year Deaf college, in memory of his father. Deaf education also thrived, with many of the Hartford School’s graduates going on to become teachers. The Hartford School also became a model upon which many other Deaf schools were established throughout the United States. As ASL was the primary language used at these schools, it spread rapidly throughout the country, and even when Deaf education was taken over by the oralist movement and ASL was banned from the schools, the language continued to thrive in part because the students at the Deaf schools taught it to each other. Deaf children from Deaf families played a particularly prominent role in that process – teaching their peers from hearing families ‘behind the backs’ of the teachers and administration. Often the ‘dialects’ present in ASL are linked as much to which Deaf school a person attended as to the geography of where they grew up. The school established in Hartford by Clerc, Gallaudet, Cogswell and others still exists today, though after several name changes, it is now the ‘American School for the Deaf’ (ASD).