When Was the Sign Language for Deaf-mutes Invented?
One of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato’s Cratylus, where Socrates says: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?”
Until the 19th century, most of what we know about historical sign languages is limited to the manual alphabets (fingerspelling systems) that were invented to facilitate transfer of words from an oral to a sign language, rather than documentation of the sign language itself. Many sign languages have developed independently throughout the world, and no first sign language can be identified.
Both signed systems and manual alphabets were found worldwide, and, though most recorded instances of sign languages seem to occur in Europe in the 17th century, it is possible that popular European ideals have overshadowed much of the attention earlier signed systems may have otherwise received. It was commonly accepted, for instance, that “the deaf” could not be educated; when John of Beverley, Archbishop of York, taught a deaf person to speak in 685 AD, it was deemed a miracle, and he was later canonized.
Generally, philosophies linking (spoken) language and intelligence persisted well into the Enlightenment. Such hegemonic ideas may have prevented the recognition of histories of certain groups for whom sign languages were integral. Earlier than the 17th century, however, groups of Deaf people may have already lived together in communities, where even in small numbers they may have communicated through basic signing systems.
In Native American communities prior to 1492, for instance, it seems one or more signed systems existed as a “lingua franca” which neighboring tribes used to communicate with one another; accounts of such signing indicate these languages were fairly complex, as ethnographers such as Cabeza de Vaca described detailed communications between them and Native Americans that were conducted in sign.
A number of Martha’s Vineyard settlers from a community in Kent, England, for instance, seemed to be carriers of deaf genes, leading to a high density of deaf individuals on the island from the 1700s, being the highest around 1840. This environment proved ideal for the development of what is today known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, which was used by hearing and deaf islanders alike. Years earlier, their Kentish ancestors, too, may have had a number of deaf community members and developed their own signing system as well.
Even earlier, between 1500 and 1700, it seems that members of the Turkish Ottoman court were using a form of signed communication (Miles). Many sought-after servants were deaf, as, some argue, they were seen as more quiet and trustworthy. Many diplomats and other hearing members of the court, however, also learned and communicated amongst one another through this signing system, which was passed down through the deaf members of the court.
In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet published Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’) in Madrid. It is considered the first modern treaty of phonetics and speech therapy, setting out a method of oral education for deaf children by means of the use of manual signs, in the form of a manual alphabet to improve communication with the deaf.
In Britain, manual alphabets were also in use for a number of purposes, such as secret communication, public speaking, or communication by deaf people. In 1648, John Bulwer described “Master Babington”, a deaf man proficient in the use of a manual alphabet, “contryved on the joynts of his fingers”, whose wife could converse with him easily, even in the dark through the use of tactile signing.
In 1680, George Dalgarno published Didascalocophus, or, The deaf and dumb mans tutor, in which he presented his own method of deaf education, including an “arthrological” alphabet, where letters are indicated by pointing to different joints of the fingers and palm of the left hand. Arthrological systems had been in use by hearing people for some time; some have speculated that they can be traced to early Ogham manual alphabets.
The vowels of this alphabet have survived in the contemporary alphabets used in British Sign Language, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language. The earliest known printed pictures of consonants of the modern two-handed alphabet appeared in 1698 with Digiti Lingua, a pamphlet by an anonymous author who was himself unable to speak.
He suggested that the manual alphabet could also be used by mutes, for silence and secrecy, or purely for entertainment. Nine of its letters can be traced to earlier alphabets, and 17 letters of the modern two-handed alphabet can be found among the two sets of 26 handshapes depicted.
Charles de La Fin published a book in 1692 describing an alphabetic system where pointing to a body part represented the first letter of the part (e.g. Brow=B), and vowels were located on the fingertips as with the other British systems. He described codes for both English and Latin.
By 1720, the British manual alphabet had found more or less its present form. Descendants of this alphabet have been used by deaf communities (or at least in classrooms) in former British colonies India, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda and South Africa, as well as the republics and provinces of the former Yugoslavia, Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Norway, Germany and the USA.
In France, the first sign languages developed in the 18th century. Old French Sign Language was used in Paris’ deaf community, before l’Abbé Charles Michel de l’Épée started his deaf school in 1760 in Paris. L’Épée’s lessons were based upon his observations of deaf people signing with hands in the streets of Paris.
The Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée (1712-1789) studied the sign language which had grown up among such people over the centuries and organized it into a systematic language which could be used in education and communication.
His work was developed by the Roch-Ambroise Cucurron, Abbé Sicard (1742-1822). A code of manual gestures evolved, some representing letters of the alphabet and others symbolizing whole words or phrases. The Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée concentrated on gestures in his school for deaf-mutes, but other teachers believed that the deaf should be taught to lip-read and, if possible, to communicate by sounds.
One of the greatest teachers of the latter method was the German Moritz Hill (1805-1874). Today many educators use a combination of both methods. The example of Helen Keller, (1880-1968), a blind deaf-mute, who was taught to speak by a devoted teacher, Anne Sullivan, made millions of people realize that deaf-mutes failed to develop speech only because they are unable to hear other people speaking.
Synthesized with French grammar, it evolved into the French Sign Language. Laurent Clerc, a graduate and former teacher in Paris, went to the United States with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to found American School for the Deaf at Hartford.
The 18th permanent school for the deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut; others followed. In 1817, Clerc and Gallaudet founded the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf). In 1864, a college for deaf people was founded in Washington D.C. Its enabling act was signed by Abraham Lincoln and was named “The National Deaf-Mute College” (later “Gallaudet College” (1894), and then renamed “Gallaudet University”) in 1986.
In the 20th Century tremendous advances have been made in the early recognition of impaired hearing and in the training of teachers and other specialists.