What is ASL?

As a Sign Language Interpreting Agency, it’s sometimes easy to forget that many people are completely unfamiliar with Deaf Culture and the variety of languages used.

What is American Sign Language?  (ASL)

ASL is a complete, complex language that employs signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

No one form of sign language is universal. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) is a different language from ASL, and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL. However, as those who communicate in sign are adept at conveying concepts without sound, the Deaf may find it easier to translate another country’s sign language than most hearing people could translate the spoken language

Where did ASL originate?

The exact beginnings of ASL are not clear, but some suggest that it arose more than 200 years ago from the intermixing of local sign languages and French Sign Language (LSF, or Langue des Signes Française).Today’s ASL includes some elements of LSF plus the original local sign languages, which over the years have melded and changed into a rich, complex, and mature language. Modern ASL and modern LSF are distinct languages and, while they still contain some similar signs, can no longer be easily understood by each other’s users.

In spoken language, words are produced by using the mouth and voice to make sounds. But for people who are deaf (particularly those who are profoundly deaf), the sounds of speech are often not heard, and only a fraction of speech sounds can be seen on the lips. Sign languages are based on the idea that vision is the most useful tool a deaf person has to communicate and receive information.

ASL is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language—it has its own rules for pronunciation, word order, and complex grammar. While every language has ways of signaling different functions, such as asking a question rather than making a statement, languages differ in how this is done. For example, English speakers ask a question by raising the pitch of their voice; ASL users ask a question by raising their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and tilting their bodies forward.

Just as with other languages, specific ways of expressing ideas in ASL vary as much as ASL users do. In addition to individual differences in expression, ASL has regional accents and dialects. Just as certain English words are spoken differently in different parts of the country, ASL has regional variations in the rhythm of signing, form, and pronunciation. Ethnicity and age are a few more factors that affect ASL usage and contribute to its variety.

Finally, a little history:

In 1815, a Protestant minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, left his home in Hartford, Connecticut to visit Europe. Dr. Mason Cogswell had asked Gallaudet to investigate methods of teaching his deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell. While in England, Gallaudet hit a roadblock when directors of the Braidwood Schools,  who taught the oral method, refused to share their methods of teaching. Nevertheless, while in London, Gallaudet met with Abbe Sicard, director of the Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris, and two of his students, one of whom was Laurent Clerc. Sicard invited Gallaudet to visit the school in Paris. He did not go immediately, but instead traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland where he again met the directors of Braidwood. They again refused to teach him their methods. Gallaudet then traveled to Paris and learned the educational methods of the Royal Institution for the Deaf with sign language, a combination of Old French Sign Language and the signs developed by Abbé de l’Épée. Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to return with him to Connecticut and become a teacher for the deaf. Gallaudet and Clerc opened the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (now called American School for the Deaf) in April 1817. Deaf students were taught French signs and brought in signs of their own, such as those from Martha’s Vineyard. Thus, it was at this school that all these influences would intermingle and become what is now known as American Sign Language.

You never really “finish” learning ASL. The language continues to evolve as a living – breathing thing. Signs that have been used for years may be deemed ‘politically incorrect’ and revised. News travels quickly and a new sign is born.  This happens with nearly every language and ASL is no exception. To receive more information on ASL , please contact us at The Sign Language Company.

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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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