American Sign Language History

The Origin of American Sign Language

               One of the first forms of Sign Language in the U.S. was during the early 1700’s at Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast. This area was heavily populated in Deaf people, with about one in four of the children being deaf.

Due to the high population the community had a way of language that relied on a good portion of hand signs or sign language creating Martha Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). However, the community would end up dwindling away as families would move inland. The sign language used by this community, though it does have an large impact, would end up being a side factor in the creation of an established American Sign Language.

               The formation of American Sign Language is most credited to Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Dr. Gallaudet was a minister in Hartford, Connecticut and had a neighbor named Mason Cogswell who had a 9-year-old daughter named Alice, in 1812 Gallaudet noticed that Cogswell’s daughter though deaf was very bright. He sought out to create a way for her to communicate, with many attempts he was able to teach Alice a little spelling and reading. It was then that Gallaudet raised up enough money and community support in order to go to Europe to learn better and more affective ways of teaching the Deaf. Gallaudet first went to England to the Braidwood Family whom owned a very renowned school for the deaf. However, the family wasn’t very willing to share their teaching and Gallaudet was not pleased with their schooling in oral methods, so he went to Paris, France instead.

There he met Abbe Sicard, Jean Massieu, and Laurent Clerc. Abbe Sicard was Abbe de l’Epee’s successor at the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in France, while Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc, both former students, were now professors. Gallaudet took many private lessons on their teaching method and soon was ready to return to America. Before leaving he convinced Clerc to come along with him in helping set up a school.

In 1817 Gallaudet and Clerc set up the first free public deaf school in the U.S. called American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

The school grew in numbers quite quickly with students coming from all over the U.S. Each of these students brought some of their own signs and overtime these signs along with the teachings of Clerc and Gallaudet would form American Sign Language.

Gallaudet retired in 1830, Clerc would later retire in the 1850’s. By the time of 1863 there were 22 established deaf schools in the U.S with most of them being created by former students of Clerc and used many of his same teaching methods.

               Thus, American Sign Language was formed and is continued to be used and added to as time goes on.