Pt. 1: The Beginning of American Sign Language

[This article is the first in an ongoing series about the history and implementation of American Sign Language for Deaf and hearing populations.]

American Sign Language (ASL) is the native language of approximately 250,000-500,000 people throughout the U.S. and Canada. ASL is a complete language distinct from American or British English, with a unique grammatical structure, based on movements of the hands and face. Because there is no universal sign language, ASL is distinct from British and French sign languages, for example. As the primary language of the Deaf community in the U.S. and Canada and a vital tool for many others, the history and use of ASL is vital to understanding communication.

ASL is far older than many people imagine, and researchers place its origin more than 200 years ago. ASL began at the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut, founded in 1817, by an intermixture of home sign systems, village sign language, and notably, an older French Sign Language, or LSF (Langue de Signe Francaise). However, modern ASL and LSF are linguistically distinct and not mutually understood.

Close to 58% of signs in modern ASL are taken from older LSF, but ASL has its own features of language, including pronunciation, word order, and word formation. ASL also includes the feature of fingerspelling, in which users spell out English words with distinct, alphabetic hand shapes, often used for proper names. ASL is also prone to regionalization, and there are many dialectal varieties of ASL that include differences in rhythm, pronunciation, slang, and other vocabulary.

ASL is also growing in popularity, and many high schoolers and college students are trying to take coursework in ASL as part of their foreign language credits. ASL is additionally useful as a total communication strategy and language-learning tool for children in early language development. Future articles will explore more of these issues and areas of usage.

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What Is American Sign Language (ASL)? | NIDCD (