American Sign Language

American Sign Language

Infobox Language
name=American Sign Language
states=United States, Canada
region=Anglophone North America
signers=500,000 to 2 million in the USA alone (others unknown)
family=emerging primarily from Old French Sign Language, with significant input from Martha's Vineyard Sign Language and various home sign systems

American Sign Language (or ASL, Ameslan) is the dominant sign language of the Deaf community in the United States, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, and in parts of Mexico. Although the United Kingdom and the United States share English as a spoken and written language, British Sign Language (BSL) is quite different from ASL, and the two sign languages are not mutually intelligible.

ASL is also used (sometimes alongside indigenous sign languages) in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. Like other sign languages, its grammar and syntax are distinct from any spoken language in its area of influence. While there has been no reliable survey of the number of people who use ASL as their primary language, estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million in the U.S. alone Fact|date=February 2008.

History of ASL

In the United States, as in most of the world, hearing families with deaf children often employ ad-hoc home sign for simple communications. Today though, ASL classes are offered in many secondary and postsecondary schools. ASL is a language distinct from spoken English—complete with its own syntax and grammar and supporting its own culture. The origin of modern ASL is ultimately tied to the confluence of many events and circumstances, including historical attempts at deaf education; the unique situation present on a small island in Massachusetts; the attempts of a father to enlist a local minister to help educate his deaf daughter; and in no small part the ingenuity and genius of people (in this case deaf people) for language itself.

Prior sign languages

Standardized sign languages have been used in Italy since the 17th century and in France since the 18th century for the instruction of the deaf. Old French Sign Language (OFSL) developed and was used in Paris by the Abbé de l'Épée in his school for the deaf. These languages were always modeled after the natural sign languages already in use by the deaf cultures in their area of origin, often with additions to show aspects of the grammar of the local spoken languages.

Indigenous Peoples of the American Plains used Plains Indian Sign Language as an interlanguage for communication between people/tribes not sharing a common spoken language; its influence on ASL, if any, is unknown.

Off the coast of Massachusetts, on the island of Martha's Vineyard in the 18th century, the population had a much higher rate of deafness than the general population of the continental United States because of the founder effect and the island's isolation. Martha's Vineyard Sign Language was well known by almost all islanders since so many families had deaf members. It afforded almost everyone the opportunity to have frequent contact with a sign language while at an age most conducive to effortlessly learning a language.

American School for the Deaf

Congregationalist minister and deaf educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is credited with popularizing the signing technique in North America. At the behest of a father who was interested in education for his deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell, Gallaudet was enlisted to investigate methods of teaching the deaf. In the early 1800s he visited the Abbé de l'Épée's school in Paris and convinced one of the teachers, Laurent Clerc, to return with him to America. In 1817 they founded the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf), in Hartford, Connecticut, to teach sign language to American deaf students.

It was at this school that all these influences would intermingle, interact and what would become ASL was born. Many of the school's students were from Martha's Vineyard, and they mixed their "native" sign language with Clerc's OFSL. Other students probably brought their own highly localized sign language or "home sign" systems to the mix. Undoubtedly, spontaneous lexicon developed at the school as well. If there was any influence from sign language of indigenous people, it may have been here that it was absorbed into the language.

Growth and standardization

Interestingly, because of the early influence of the sign language of France upon the school, the vocabularies of ASL and modern French Sign Language are approximately 60% shared, whereas ASL and British Sign Language, for example, are almost completely dissimilar.

From its synthesis at this first public school for the deaf in North America, the language went on to grow. Many of the graduates of this school went on to found schools of their own in many other states, thus spreading the methods of Gallaudet and Clerc and serving to expand and standardize the language; as with most languages though, there are regional variations.

Oralism vs. Manualism

After being strongly established in the United States there was a bitter fight between those who supported oralism over manualism in the late 1800s. Many notable individuals of high standing contributed to this row, such as Alexander Graham Bell. The oralists won many battles and for a long time the use of sign was suppressed, socially and pedagogically. Many considered sign to not even be a language at all. This situation was changed by William Stokoe, a professor of English hired at Gallaudet University in 1955. He immediately became fascinated by ASL and began serious study of it. Eventually, through publication in linguistics journals of articles containing detailed linguistic analysis of ASL, he was able to convince the scientific mainstream that ASL was indeed a natural language on a par with any other.

A living language

The language continues to grow and change like any living language. In particular, ASL constantly adds new signs in an attempt to keep up with constantly changing technology. Fact|date=September 2008


ASL is a natural language as proved to the satisfaction of the linguistic community by William Stokoe, and contains phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax and pragmatics just like spoken languages. It is a "manual language" or "visual language", meaning that the information is expressed not with combinations of sounds but with combinations of handshapes, palm orientations, movements of the hands, arms and body, location in relation to the body, and facial expressions. While spoken languages are produced by the vocal cords only, and can thus be easily written in linear patterns, ASL uses the hands, head and body, with constantly changing movements and orientations. Like other natural sign languages, it is "three dimensional" in this sense. [cite book |last= Tennant|first= Richard|title= The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary|year= 1998|publisher= Clerc Books|isbn= 1563680432] [(2005), Downs, Sharon. Make A Difference. University of Arkansas at Little Rock.] ASL is used natively and predominantly by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing of the United States and Canada.


Although it often seems as though the signs are meaningful of themselves, in fact they can be as arbitrary as words in spoken language. For example, a child may often make the mistake of using the word "you" to refer to themselves, since others use that word to refer to him or her. Children who acquire the sign YOU (pointing at one's interlocutor) make similar mistakes – they will point at others to mean themselves, indicating that even something as seemingly explicit as pointing is an arbitrary sign in ASL, like words in a spoken language.

However, Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi have modified the common theory that signs can be self-explanatory by grouping signs into three categories:

*Transparent: Non-signers can usually correctly guess the meaning
*Translucent: Meaning makes sense to non-signers once it is explained
*Opaque: Meaning cannot be guessed by non-signers

Klima and Bellugi used American Sign Language in formulating that classification. The theory that signs are self-explanatory can be conclusively disproved by the fact that non-signers cannot understand fluent, continuous sign language. The majority of signs are opaque.

Generally, signs that are "Transparent" are signs of objects or words that became popular after the basics of ASL were established. There are, of course, exceptions to this.


ASL includes both fingerspelling borrowings from English, as well as the incorporation of alphabetic letters from English words into ASL signs to distinguish related meanings of what would otherwise be covered by a single sign in ASL. For example, two hands trace a circle to mean 'a group of people'. Several kinds of groups can be specified by handshape: When made with C hands, the sign means 'class'; when made with F hands, it means 'family'. Such signs are often referred to as initialized signs because they substitute the first initial an English word as the handshape in order to provide a more specific meaning.

When using alphabetic letters in these ways, several otherwise non-phonemic handshapes become distinctive. For example, outside fingerspelling there is but a single fist handshape, with the placement of the thumb irrelevant, but within fingerspelling the position of the thumb on the fist distinguishes the letters A, S, and T. Letter-incorporated signs which rely on such minor distinctions tend not to be stable in the long run, but they may eventually create new distinctions in the language. For example, due to signs such as 'elevator', which generally requires the E handshape, some argue that E has become phonemically distinct from the 5/claw handshape.

Fingerspelling has also given way to a class of signs known as "loan signs" or "borrowed signs." Sometimes defined as lexicalized fingerspelling, loan signs are somewhat frequent and represent an English word which has, over time, developed a unique movement and shape. Sometimes loan signs are not even recognized as such because they are so frequently used and their movement has become so specialized. Loan signs are sometimes used for emphasis (like the loan sign #YES substituted for the sign YES), but sometimes represent the only form of the sign (e.g., #NO). Probably the most commonly used example of a loan sign is the sign for NO. In this sign, the first two fingers are fused, held out straight, and then tapped against the thumb in a repeated motion. When broken down, it can be seen that this movement is an abbreviated way of fingerspelling N-O-N-O. Loan signs are usually glossed as the English word in all capital letters preceded by the pound sign(#).Other commonly known loan signs include #CAR, #JOB, #BACK, #YES, and #EARLY.


Writing systems

ASL is often written with English words in all capital letters, which is known as "glossing". This is, however, a method used simply to teach the structure of the language. ASL is a visual language, not a written language. There is no one-to-one correspondence between words in ASL and English, and much of the inflectional modulation of ASL signs is lost.

There are two true writing systems in use for ASL: a phonemic Stokoe notation, which has a separate symbol or diacritic mark for every phonemic hand shape, motion, and position (though it leaves something to be desired in the representation of facial expression), and a more popular iconic system called SignWriting, which represents each sign with a rather abstract illustration of its salient features. SignWriting is commonly used for student newsletters and similar purposes.

Baby Sign

In recent years, it has been shown that exposure to sign language has a positive impact on the socialization of hearing children. When infants are taught to sign, parents are able to converse with them at a developmental stage when they are not yet capable of producing oral speech, which requires fine control of both breathing and the vocal tract. The ability of a child to actively communicate earlier than would otherwise be possible appears to accelerate language development and to decrease the frustrations of communication.

Many parents use a collection of simplified or "ad hoc" signs called "baby sign", as infants do not have the dexterity required for true ASL. However, parents can learn to recognize their baby's approximations of adult ASL signs, just as they will later learn to recognize their approximations of oral language, so teaching an infant ASL is also possible. Typically young children will make an ASL sign in the correct location and use the correct hand motion, but may be able only to approximate the hand shape, for example, using one finger instead of three in signing "water".

ee also

*American Manual Alphabet
*Bimodal Bilingualism in the American Deaf Community
*British Sign Language
*Child of deaf adult
*Filipino Sign Language
*Gallaudet University
*Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
*Signing Exact English
*ASL Idioms
*Profanity in ASL
*Cued Speech


* Barnard, Henry (1852), "Tribute to Gallaudet—A Discourse in Commemoration of the Life, Character and Services, of the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, LL.D.—Delivered Before the Citizens of Hartford, January 7, 1852. With an Appendix, Containing History of Deaf-Mute Instruction and Institutions, and other Documents." (Download book:
* Lane, Harlan L. (1984). "When the mind hears: A history of the deaf". New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-50878-5.
* Padden, Carol; & Humphries, Tom. (1988). "Deaf in America: Voices from a culture". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-19423-3.
* Sacks, Oliver W. (1989). "Seeing voices: A journey into the land of the deaf". Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06083-0.

External links

* [ List of every ASL online dictionaries] en - fr
* [ American Sign Language (ASL)] resource site. Free online lessons, ASL dictionary, and resources for teachers, students, and parents.
* [ Dictionary of Sign] A wiki style user compiled dictionary of sign language (Various Countries)
* [ The American Sign Language Linguistics Research Project]
** [ Publications of the ASLLRP]
** [ The Syntactic Organization of American Sign Language: A Synopsis] (.pdf)
* [ About ASL] - article at []
* [ Ethnologue entry on ASL]
* [ Video Dictionary of ASL]
* [ Chimpanzees & Sign Language] - article focusing on chimpanzee communication through sign language.
* [ Some Cultural Info about ASL]
* [ Athabaskan Satellites & ASL Ion-Morphs]
* [ American Sign Language is a Foreign Language] - a research/argumentative paper for the consideration of ASL to fulfill University foreign language requirements.
* [ ASL Helper] Type an English word, links to vocabulary sites. Vocabulary only; no syntax or grammar; some inaccuracies.
* [ American Sign Language]

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