Old French Sign Language

Old French Sign Language
Old French Sign Language
Signed in France
Native signers Estimated 200 in Paris in the 1750s
Language family
French Sign Language family.
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None

Old French Sign Language is a term that loosely describes the language of the deaf community in 18th century Paris at the time of the establishment of the first deaf schools. The earliest records of the language are in the work of the Abbé de l'Épée, who stumbled across two sisters communicating in signs, and through them became aware of a signing community of 200 deaf Parisians.

Records of the language they used are scant — Épée saw their signing as beautiful but primitive, and rather than studying or recording it, he set about developing his own unique sign system ("langage de signes méthodiques") which borrowed signs from Old French Sign Language and combined them with an idiosyncratic morphemic structure which he derived from the French language. The term "Old French Sign Language" has occasionally been used to describe Épée's "systematised signs", and he has often been (erroneously) cited as the inventor of sign language.

Épée did however influence the language of the deaf community, and modern French Sign Language can be said to have emerged in the schools that Épée established. As deaf schools inspired by Épée's model sprung up around the world, the language was to influence the development of many other sign languages, including American Sign Language. From the dictionaries [1] of "systematised signs" that the Abbé de l'Épée and his successor Abbé Roche-Ambroise Sicard published, we can see that many of the signs described have direct descendants in sign languages today.

A contemporary of the Abbe de l'Épée who was himself deaf, Pierre Desloges, did partially describe Old French Sign Language, in what was possibly the first book ever to be published by a deaf person [2] (1779). We know that the language did make use of the possibilities of a spatial grammar. One of the grammatical features noted by Desloges was the use of directional verbs, such as the verb TO WANT.

From the few descriptions that exist, modern linguists are unable to build up a complete picture of Old French Sign Language, but ongoing research continues to uncover more pieces of the puzzle. It is not known how the language was acquired, or how long the language had been developing before Épée established his school. However, evidence suggests that whenever a large enough population of deaf people exists, a sign language will spontaneously arise (see Nicaraguan Sign Language). As Paris had been the largest city in Europe for hundreds of years until the 17th century (and with 565,000 inhabitants in 1750), French Sign Language is a good candidate for one of the oldest sign languages in Europe.

Old French Sign Language is not related to Old French, which was spoken from roughly AD 1000 to 1300.


  1. ^ Sicard, Roche-Ambroise; 1800, Cours d'instruction d'un Sourd-Muet de Naissance
  2. ^ Desloges, Pierre; 1779, Observations d’un sourd et muet, sur un cours élémentaire d’éducation des sourds et muets, Published in 1779 by M. l’Abbé Deschamps (Chapelain de l’Église d’Orléans), Amsterdam and B. Morin, Paris.

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