Hand signals, as simple as the peace sign, can denote a variety of meanings. In the American Sign Language (ASL) Alphabet, this represents the letter “V”. Meanwhile, moving your hand, palm facing your face, from your chin towards the person in front of you denotes thank you. These are just some examples of ASL used daily by the deaf community.
Sign language is one of the most common forms of visual communication that has enhanced the quality of life for people with hearing disabilities. Hand gestures and facial expressions are essential for one to be able to express what they want to say.
Although sign language has long been recognized as one of the modes of communication, it only began to develop in the 16th century and was formally recognized in the 1800s. In earlier times, deaf people were ostracized and deemed to be incapable of learning. All of this changed when Spanish monk Pedro Ponce de Leon thought of a way to communicate during his time of vow of silence. To communicate nonverbally, he created a system that associated letters with hand gestures to spell out words. He set up a school for the deaf where deaf children were first taught the alphabet with hand gestures. Then, they learned how to write and read and eventually speak through their hands.
Similarly, French priest Abbe Charles de L’Eppe, who realized his calling was in educating the deaf, created his sign language system and established the first public school for people with hearing disabilities in the 18th century. L’Eppe also established the syntax for sign language. His work and influence continued to grow, leading to the development of more schools for the deaf, both locally and internationally.
Eventually, the development of sign language in European countries found its way into the American scene through Thomas Gallaudet. During the 19th century, Gallaudet travelled to Europe to learn more about educating the deaf to help his neighbor’s deaf daughter learn. He learned the French sign language and eventually went back to the US to set up an American school for the deaf. With him was Laurent Clerc who helped establish the American Asylum for the Deaf. They modified French Sign Language and integrated it with pre-existing sign languages used by other communities in the United States, and this became the American Sign Language (ASL) that we know today.
At present, ASL is widely used by the deaf community, but it is not a universal language. Other countries also have their own sign language systems that they created. Currently, there are over hundreds of sign languages used by millions of deaf people all over the world. Sign language is spontaneously evolving and we don't know when or where another official sign language will be created (It’s even possible that there is one being developed at this moment). But one thing’s for sure is that formal sign language has evolved, and continues to grow into a form of communication that benefits the deaf community.
Dayas, Ines Anton. “The History of Sign Language.” How monks helped invent sign language. National Geographic, May 3, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/creation-of-sign-language.
Duchan, Judith Felson. Pedro Ponce de Leon 1520-1584, September 12, 2021. https://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~duchan/new_history/early_modern/ponce_de_leon.html.
The History of Sign Language, August 2, 2022. https://get.goreact.com/resources/the-history-of-sign-language/.
Larson, Brook. “A History of Sign Language.” A history of sign language, February 23, 1998. https://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/Ling450ch/reports/sign-language.html.
Ruben, Robert J. “Sign Language: Its History and Contribution to the Understanding of the Biological Nature of Language.” Acta Oto-Laryngologica 125, no. 5 (2005): 464–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/00016480510026287.