What is ASL?

And What Are Its Origins?

Learning a new language usually means learning how to speak in a new way. Not so with American Sign Language, which you probably already know relies on hands, arms, body language and facial expressions to communicate words and ideas without sound. But what you may not know is the origins of ASL, who came up with it and why it continues to be the dominant language of Deaf Americans today.

In 1814, Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet started treating hearing-impaired patient Alice Cogswell. Alice, born August 31, 1805, inspired Dr. Gallaudet to create the first American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

Alice's Early Adversities

Illness Leads to Tragedy

At the age of two, Alice became ill with cerebral-spinal meningitis, colloquially known as “spotted fever.” This illness took both her hearing and ability to speak. When she was 9 years old, Dr. Gallaudet became her teacher. Working with Alice's father, Dr. Mason Cogswell, the two men were flummoxed by the lack of a decent school that could attend to the needs of hearing impaired students.

American School for the Deaf

Dr. Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn more about deaf education and communication. In 1817, he and Laurent Clerc co-founded the first school for the Deaf in North America, the Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, located in Hartford, Connecticut. Laurent Clerc was called “The Apostle of the Deaf in America” by generations of American deaf people. Alice Cogswell and six other deaf students entered the school, which was later renamed the American School for the Deaf, and which is still the oldest existing school for the Deaf in North America.

Gallaudet and Cogswell's Legacy

A Series of Statues

A Statue of Dr. Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell

Sadly, Alice passed away at the age of 25 in 1830, almost two weeks after the death of her father. Her memory lives on with the help of several statues. One is of her and Gallaudet that continues to stand on the campus of the American School for the Deaf at Hartford. Another statue of Gallaudet and Cogswell stands in front of Gallaudet University campus, depicting Gallaudet sitting on a chair and Alice standing next to him to share their communication of the letter "A" in American Sign Language. Finally, the Alice Cogswell statue at the American School for the Deaf Founders Memorial, sculpted by Frances Laughlin Wadsworth, represents Alice as a young girl.

Creating the Dictionary of American Sign Language

ASL and Deaf Culture Gains Wider Acceptance

While the first American School for the Deaf was founded almost 200 years ago, a wider acceptance of deaf culture has been slower in occuring. Today’s deaf culture was officially recognized in 1965, still less than half a century ago. Researchers William Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline were the ones who really helped to introduce the culture of the Deaf to the world. They wrote the Dictionary of American Sign Language and included information about the thriving culture of the deaf. Before the Dictionary of American Sign Language was published, many people involved in the fields of medicine and deaf education only saw deaf people in terms of their hearing impairment, which was viewed as a clear disability. Others may have assumed that deaf people did not have their own culture.

Language is obviously an integral part of any culture, and deaf culture is no different. ASL itself evolved from the many signs used around the country as well as French sign language. Some of the values of ASL and deaf culture include overexaggerating facial expressions and body movements while signing. Staring is necessary, and it is not rude to stare in this culture. Not staring is actually rude in this culture. When someone is signing to you and you break eye contact, you have indicated that you are no longer receiving the message, which is clearly very rude.

Learning ASL even benefits those who do necessarily need to learn it. For instance, children who learn ASL and how to sign at an early age have proven diversity with a variety of communication tools. Another reason to learn and practice ASL is that it allows insight into deaf culture and to better communicate with the deaf. Try learning a new word or phrase in ASL today: you might be surprised by how rewarding and enjoyable it is to learn part of such a unique means of communication.