American Sign Language

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{{Infobox Language |name=American Sign Language |nativename=ASL |states=United States, Canada and Mexico |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 |iso3=ase }} American Sign Language (ASL, also Amslan obs., Ameslan obs.) 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 not mutually intelligible.

ASL is also used (sometimes alongside indigenous sign languages) in the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dominican Republic, 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.A. alone [1]. American Sign Language has been said (by Trudy Suggs in her book) to be the third-most-used language in America after English and Spanish.


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—replete 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; possibly the sign used by the indigenous nations of North America; 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.

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 was developed and 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.

American Plains Indians 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 ASL while at an age most conducive to effortlessly learning a language.

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 educating his deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell, he 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.

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.

After being strongly established in this country 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.

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.


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 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, and facial expressions. It 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, hearing children often make the mistake of using "you" to refer to themselves, since others refer to them as "you." 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.


The grammar of ASL uses spatial locations, motion, and context to indicate syntax. For example:

  • The primary sentence structure in ASL is Topic-Comment and Object-Subject-Verb. For example, in the sentence "I want the book," I is the subject, Book is the object, and want is the verb. The sentence, therefore, would be signed as "BOOK, ME WANT." To add a time element, such as "I want the book tomorrow", the time component is placed at the beginning of the sentence, making it look like this: "TOMORROW BOOK ME WANT." In addition, prosody can alter sentence structure.
  • ASL also relies heavily on Time Sequenced Ordering. Since ASL is a visual language, when signing a sentence or a story one signs it in the order in which events occurred. For example, in the case of the sentence "I was late to class last night because my boss handed me a huge stack of work after lunch yesterday," one would sign "YESTERDAY LUNCH FINISH, BOSS GIVE-ME WORK BIG-STACK, NIGHT CLASS LATE-ME." In the case of stories, however, Time Sequenced Ordering can be a little more malleable since one could choose to sign information either in the order in which events occurred or in the order in which one found out about events.
  • If a signer signs a noun and then points to a certain spot, he or she can refer back to that noun by pointing again to the same spot. This is also known as setting up the noun. For instance, if you point to a spot over your right shoulder in talking about your grandmother in another city, then when you mention her again, instead of signing "GRANDMOTHER," you can just point back to the same spot.
  • Within ASL there is a class of directional verbs. These include the signs for pay, give, show, invite, send, and several others. Depending on which way the hand moves, either away from the body or towards, distinguishes between the subject and object of the sentence, which are both included within the one sign. For example, to sign "I GIVE YOU", the hand in the shape of a flattened "O" moves away from the signer's body. In signing "YOU GIVE ME" the same handshape is drawn toward the body.
  • To intensify the meaning of a verb or adjective (e.g., to say "very calm" instead of "calm"), the signer modulates the way it is expressed. Certain short words, such as "sad" or "mad" might be fingerspelled rather than signed. Other words can be repeated or slowed down, emphasizing their importance or degree. Some signs may be enlarged, so that they take up more body space. This can also involve a back and forth scissoring motion of the arms to indicate that the sign ought to be larger, but one is physically incapable of stretching the arms any farther than they already are. Moving the whole body and adding facial expressions are also useful modifiers.
  • Raised eyebrows can indicate a yes-or-no question, while lowered eyebrows indicate a wh-question or one that requests more information such as those that would use the question words: who, what, when, where, why or how.
  • When rhetorical questions are used the eyebrows are raised to give the cue not to reply. For example, "I don't like [what?] (raised eyebrows), garlic".
  • Like some spoken languages, ASL does not use the linking verb "to be" (either as a 'copula' or a helping verb). An example of a copula is the English phrase "My hair is wet", which when translated into ASL would be transliterated as, "MY HAIR, WET". (The comma indicates a short pause and raised eyebrow to topicalize "my hair".) An example of a helping verb is translating the English phrase "We are going to the store tomorrow", some possible ASL sentences, literally translated, could be
    • "TOMORROW, STORE WE GO." (Topicalization, TOMORROW is the focus)
    • "STORE, WE GO TOMORROW." (Topicalization, STORE is the focus)
  • In ASL, a signer might not use the word "because", but instead break down the sentence into a rhetorical question. This is often used for clarity or emphasis. For instance, "I love to eat pasta because I am Italian" would be translated into "I LOVE EAT PASTA, WHY? I ITALIAN." Rhetorical questions do not replace the word "because". Rather, they are used only when the speaker deems it necessary.
  • Some signs can be executed in different locations for contextual reasons. The sign for "PAIN" - two pointed index fingers aimed at each other moved towards then away from each other - can be signed over one's leg to show that there is pain in the leg, or over the belly to indicate abdominal pain.
  • Facial expression is also key in ASL. In signing "ANGRY", a facial expression of anger should be put on. Without expressions like this, the effect would be similar to listening to someone who was speaking in extremely monotone spoken English, or it would be taken as an indication of sarcasm or some other departure from the usual meaning of the sign.
  • ASL also makes use of mouth morphemes, certain sounds or mouth configurations that add meaning to a sign. For example, one could sign "MAN TALL" and communicate that a man is reasonably tall, but by adding the mouth morpheme "Cha" while signing TALL, the sentence would then be understood as "That man is ENORMOUS!!!"

Writing systems

ASL is often glossed with English words written in all capital letters. 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"

Template:Main 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 verbal 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 later on they will learn to recognize their approximations of verbal 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 handshape, for example, using one finger instead of three in signing water.

Primate usage

ASL has allegedly been taught to both species of chimpanzee, the bonobo and common chimpanzee, as well as to gorillas. Several of the animals have been said to have mastered more than one hundred signs, though not all agree with the ability of the primates to sign. For example, when the Washoe research team asked the handlers of the chimp to write signs down whenever they witnessed them being produced by Washoe, the hearing people on the team turned in long lists of signs while the only deaf native speaker of ASL on the team turned in blank lists, explaining that what she saw were not signs at all, but simply gestures. Further fomenting the controversy, the researchers in the studies of Koko and Washoe refused to share their raw data with the scientific community. The theory that non-human primates have learned ASL, or that they are even capable of learning ASL or any other natural language, is not currently accepted by linguists—including linguists who accept similar but better documented claims of rudimentary human language acquisition by birds. Despite this, however, research on the ability of primates to learn symbol systems continues and receives occasional publicity in the media.

See also

External links


eo:Usona signolingvo nl:Amerikaanse Gebarentaal ja:アメリカ手話 fi:Amerikkalainen viittomakieli zh:美國手語