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American Sign Language


Its not mouth stuff its brain stuff
(Bill Stokoe)
Is sign language the same worldwide?

There are sign language families just as there are
spoken language families. In the European Union for
example, 23 official spoken languages and 31 sign
languages have been documented (Wheatley and Pabsch
2010). The boundaries between spoken languages and
those between sign languages do not always coincide.

The 2013 edtition of The Ethnologue an encyclopedic
reference work cataloging all of the worlds 6,909 known
living languages - lists just 137 Deaf sign languages,
although there are more known but undocumented sign

However, as the international Deaf community
is a highly mobile community, there is also a
contact variety of sign called International
Sign. This is not a standardised international
language but is a form of communication which
draws on the context of each situation and the
language backgrounds of the people involved
in the contact.

Differences between Signed and
Spoken Languages
(also applicable to ASL)

Iconicity and arbitrariness
Simultaneous and sequential
Similarities between Signed and
Spoken Languages
(also applicable to ASL)
Duality of patterning
Linguistic productivity
Phrase structure
Sign language

A sign language (also signed
language or simply signing) is a
language which uses manual
communication and body language to
convey meaning.
Signing is also done by persons who
can hear, but cannot physically
Just as no one can pinpoint the origins of
spoken language in prehistory, the roots of
sign language remain hidden from view.
What linguists do know is that sign
languages have sprung up independently in
many different places.
Signing probably began with simple
gestures, but then evolved into a true
language with structured grammar.
Sign languages generally do not have any
linguistic relation to the spoken languages
of the lands in which they arise.
Historical timeline
century B. C. one of the earliest
written records of a sign language
recorded in Platos Cratylus.
Aristotle was the first to have a claim
recorded about the deaf. He believed
that people can only learn through
hearing spoken language. Deaf
people were therefore seen as being
unable to learn or be educated at all.
Geronimo Cardano the first scholar who
identified that learning does not require
hearing (16
1620 Juan Pablo de Bonet, a Spanish
priest, published Reduction of letters and
art for teaching mute people to speak in
Madrid, considered the first modern treatise
of sign language phonetics.
Not until the 1700s, in France, hearing
people paid attention to deaf people and
their language. Religion was an important
Organized deaf education was non-existent
until around 1750.
1750, France the foundation of the first
social and religious association for deaf
people by Charles-Michel Abbe de lEpe, a
French Catholic priest.
1755, Paris the foundation of the first
school for deaf children.
1771, France - Charles-Michel Abbe de
lEpe established the first public free deaf
school, the National Institute for Deaf-

1800s Laurent Clerc, one of de lEpes school
graduates, brought the French signing teaching
method to the United States.
1817 - together with Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet,
Laurent Clerc create the American School for Deaf,
the first permanent school for the deaf in the U. S.
1857 Thomas Gallaudets son, Edward Miner
Gallaudet founded a school for the deaf in
Washington, D. C., which in 1864 became the
National Deaf-Mute College.
Now called Gallaudet University, it is the only liberal
arts university for deaf people in the world.
Although de lEpe claimed that sign
language is the native language for the
deaf, Samuel Heinicke believed in Oralism.
Oralists wanted to stop school from
teaching in ASL, then the method of
instruction in all schools for the deaf.
None was more fervent than Alexander
Graham Bell.
1880, Milan the International Congress
on the Education of the Deaf proscribed the
use of sign language in schools.

1960 William Stokoe, scholar and hearing
professor at Gallaudet University, published
a dissertation, Sign Language Structure,
that proved ASL is a genuine language with
a unique syntax and grammar. From this
time on, ASL was recognized as a national
1995 Heather Whitestone became the
first deaf woman to be named Miss
Sign language components
Hand gestures
Facial expressions (eyebrow motion, lip/mouth
The space surrounding the signer is used to describe
places and people that are not present.
In 1960, William Stokoe described signs as
combinations of particular values of what he called
1. the hand configuration of the sign;
2. its place of articulation at some point on or near the
signers body
3. the movement of the sign.
William Stokoes definition of sign:

Specific handshape +
palm orientation+
movement in a particular
The pioneers of sign language
linguistics were trying to prove that
ASL was a real language and not just
a collection of gestures.
Real languages theory

American Sign Language
and Irish Sign Language belong
to the LSF (langue des signes
franaise) family, which is
unrelated to BSL, and BSL and
LSF are not mutually
Because of the vast territory
and little contact between
signers, there are today several
varieties of ASL in the United
States, including one used by
southern black signers.

In North America, the same
conditions led to the
appearance of French Canadian
SL, Alaskan Native SL, and
Nova Scotia SL.

The BSL family includes
BSL, Australian Sign
Language and NZ Sign
Language. These sign
languages are similar
enough for people who
know any one of them to
be able to understand
Deaf people who use one
of the others.

Emerged from FSL
Influence upon other sign
languages, or other regional
varieties of ASL.
Thai SL is a mixed language
derived from ASL and the
native SLs of Bangkok and
Chang Mai, and may be
considered part of the ASL
American Sign Language is
used in the USA and in the
English-speaking parts of
Canada by over a half
million people, making it
the fourth most widely used
non-English language in the
U. S.

It is used in Great Britain

It has no resemblance with
BSL and LSF are not mutually

Neither of them resembles with
spoken English.

Signs do not correspond to words and
the phonology and syntax is
spatially organized rather than linear.
Like spoken languages, it includes
grammatical categories, however it
does not have signs for function


Crystal, David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language
Stokoe, William, 1960, Sign Language Structure: An Outline
of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf
Carroll, David W., Psychology of Language
Leach McGuire, Gigi, American Sign Language and the
second language learner: the influence of modality on adult
second language acquisition
Durr, D. 1985, The Hands of Time: An Exploration into
Some Features of Deixis in American Sign Language.
Wolkomir Richard, 1992, American Sign Language: Its not
mouth stuff - its brain stuff.


Thank you!