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There was, of course, sign language
long before it was called
American Sign Language (ASL).  

The information here presented is intended to summarize the history of American Sign Language, not to fully explore the issues touched upon during its course.  In addition to fluency in ASL, the professional sign language interpreter must be knowledgeable about Deaf culture and community, education, and history.  Further study should include a familiarity with the life and times of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet; a marvelous place to begin is here.

 

Chronology

1700-1799; 1800-1899; 1900-1999; 2000-2099

Events

Deaf President Now (DPN)
ASL recognized as a language.
Congress of Milan
First School for the Deaf (USA)
First ASL Dictionary

Linguistics

French Sign Language
Sign Language Structure

People

Barnard, Henry
Bell, Alexander Graham
Clerc, Laurent
Cogswell, Alice
Gallaudet, Thomas H.
Lincoln, Abraham
Population Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Population New England
Stokoe, William
Veditz, George

Perspectives

Manualism
Oralism
Total Communication (TC)
Commission on Education of the Deaf (CoED)
Sign Systems

Places

Clark School
Gallaudet University
Hartford, Connecticut
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Milan, Italy
New York
Paris, France

Technology

Film Preservation

 

 

1700s

The Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard was home to several generations of people born with genetic deafness or passing it along to children and grandchildren.  Residents of the isolated island lived with or near, transacted business and socialized with both hearing and deaf people.  Because approximately one in every 100 people was deaf, everyone on Martha's Vineyard knew both English and sign language as a matter of course.

1807

A daughter, Alice, was born in the fall of 1807 to Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell.

1809

While two years of age, Alice Cogswell became deaf after contracting spotted fever.

1815

In April, 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet met with others at the home of Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell to discuss the feasibility of establishing a school for the deaf locally.  Dr. Cogswell hoped to educate daughter Alice in Harford, rather than sending her to a European school.

In May, 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet set sail for Europe in the hope of qualifying himself to become a teacher of the deaf, and then returning to Connecticut, where he planned to use his new skills to take up the task.  During this voyage, Thomas Gallaudet recorded his estimate that there were then 400 deaf people in New England; 2,000 in the United States [as cited in 1852 by Henry Barnard in his Tribute to Gallaudet].

1816

After learning French Sign Language from Laurent Clerc at Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets in Paris, France, Gallaudet convinced Clerc to travel to the United States, and to bring French Sign Language to American deaf students and their teachers.

1817

In Hartford, Connecticut, an educator from France, Laurent Clerc, and a local minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, together established what is now the American School for the Deaf and introduced French Sign Language to this country.  The school was built on land granted for the purpose by Congress.  Students came from far and wide.  By January 1818 there were 31 pupils.

          Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (engraving, 1830)                    Laurent Clerc (Painting, 1840)
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1830)                                  Laurent Clerc (1840)

1852

In his Tribute to Gallaudet (some of which comprised Gallaudet's eulogy), Henry Barnard estimated the number of deaf people in New England at 400; in the United States, 2,000.  

1860s

The oralist tradition of teaching deaf children using English (spoken/written) only became strongly entrenched within [hearing] American society.  Alexander Graham Bell, Horace Mann, and Samuel Gridley Howe were key figures in the oralism movement.  A response to oralism is manualism, the tradition of teaching deaf children by way of sign language, the natural language of people who are deaf.   Children who were caught signing were punished because sign language was summarily forbidden.  This potential threat to ASL turned out to be no threat at all, as children simply restricted their signing to safe places with like-minded people.


Two oralist schools opened: New York Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes; and Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes.

Nonetheless, American Sign Language continued to thrive as deaf children and their friends and families signed in dormitories, on playgrounds, at deaf clubs, and at home. 

1864

Edward Miner Gallaudet (the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet), established Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  The new college's charter was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.  At the time, Gallaudet University was called National Deaf-Mute College.

1880

One hundred sixty-four educators of the deaf, representing eight countries, met at the Congress of Milan in Italy.

The National Association of the Deaf is established.

1909

Click here for the [U.S.] Catholic Encyclopedia entry of 100+ years ago.

1910

Under the leadership of George Veditz, the National Association of the Deaf employed motion picture photography to document "excellent signers."  The concern that the emphasis on oralism would cause sign language to eventually disappear.  The documentation project ended in 1920 after amassing two hours' of film.  View clips here.

Still shot from NAD ASL preservation project film. (1913)
George Veditz (1913)

1960

A [hearing] Gallaudet College professor, William Stokoe (pronounced STOW-kee) published a groundbreaking treatise Sign Language Structure, thereby clarifying, once and for, all ASL's status as a natural, full, complete, and independent language.

1965

William Stokoe co-authored Dictionary of American Sign Language, the first of its kind.

1970

William Stokoe established the Linguistic Research Laboratory at Gallaudet University.


The practice of Total Communication (TC) became popular among educators of the deaf, who believed the best way to educate students was to use ASL, English, demonstration, pictures, indeed any language, code, or symbol.  The goal was to guide children toward English as their primary language, and several sign systems of manually coded English were developed for this use.

1988

The Commission on Education of the Deaf (CoED) was charged by the Congress of the United States to investigate and report on the success of deaf education in America.  The Commission concluded that the oral emphasis had failed in facilitating academic success.

   The Deaf President Now (DPN) uprising galvanized the American Deaf community.  Never before had there been a Gallaudet University president who was deaf, and activists and supporters demanded it.  As a result, Gallaudet's first deaf president, Dr. I. King Jordan, was appointed.

1989

The Deaf Way conference and festival, held at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was attended by more than 6,000 participants representing 80 countries.

 

 

This page was edited: 09/15/2009
This page has been visited Hit Counter times since: October 2008.
TerpTopics is a trademark and service mark of TerpTopics, LLC. © 2008; 2009. All rights reserved.

TerpTopics™ is an independent entity; as such does not claim or attempt to claim, represent, or imply by any means whatsoever that it is associated with any other entity that may or may not offer services, goods, or information of interest to interpreter, Deaf, or student communities.  The opinions expressed here those of TerpTopics unless otherwise stated.  Please keep in mind that, while every effort is made to present correct, appropriate, and reasonable information that is based on our experience, anecdotal experiences of others, or developed during the general course of study and professional development, we do not represent TerpTopics as having cornered the market on wisdom (heck, no!) or experience; one reason why links to several other good and reliable resources are made available throughout this site, and we hope that earnest seekers of knowledge will take advantage of them.

 

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Gifts, goodies, and prezzies!  Shop 'til you drop!!  =)

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So many books;
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Movies, movies, and MORE movies!!

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