American Sign Language/Introduction
For a long time, up until about the 1960s, those who were deaf were taught to speechread, often being banned from using visual language in residential schools. Signed languages were not seen as proper languages; it was thought they were highly iconic systems of gesture or mime.
However, that is not the case. Beginning with the work of William Stokoe in the 1960s, it was discovered that signed languages (in this case, American Sign Language) has properties corresponding to those of spoken language. Both spoken and signed languages have
- In spoken languages, this refers to the smallest units of meaningful sound, and their characteristics. In signed languages, it refers to the smallest units of meaningful sign, and their characteristics.
- The smallest units of meaning. The word "dog" is one morpheme (it cannot be subdivided into smaller units of meaning) but three phonemes (
- The meaning imparted by the arbitrary symbols of language.
- The rules for combining morphemes into correctly-formed sentences.
- The social rules for using language. For example, it is often considered taboo to curse in the presence of females.
Recent research has revealed more of ASL's complexity, confirming time and again that it is a natural language.
So, American Sign Language is a true language, just like any of the spoken languages you are familiar with. However, contrary to popular belief, sign language is not international. Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages develop. Before ASL was recognized as a real language, deaf students were often sent to residential schools where they were banned from using signed languages. Nevertheless, children would create their own sign languages with arbitrary symbols, rich grammar. Similarly, there are many examples of families creating their own sign language to communicate with deaf children. Finally, the case of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is a well known example of a signed language spontaneously developing out of need.
As with spoken languages, signed languages vary from country to country, and are not based on the spoken language in the country of origin. Like spoken languages, they developed over long periods of time, and are constantly changing. They continue to do so today.
American Sign Language is the dominant sign language in the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico, as well as smaller populations throughout the rest of the world - however it is not universal. Even in other English-speaking countries like Britain, ASL is not used. In Britain, BSL (British Sign Language) is used, and is unintelligible to ASL signers and vice versa. ASL is more closely related to LSF (Langue des Signes Française) for historical reasons.
American Sign Language is usually abbreviated ASL (it is rarely referred to as Ameslan as well). As with other sign languages, its grammar and syntax are separate and distinct from the spoken language(s) spoken in its area of influence. Its origins have been traced to the turn of the 19th Century and include French Sign Language and the sign language of the residents of Martha's Vineyard. Since there is no commonly-used written form of ASL, there may be other underdocumented influences on the language.
Although it often seems as though the signs are meaningful of themselves, in fact they are as arbitrary as words in spoken language. For example, hearing children often make the mistake of using "you" to refer to themselves, since others refer to them as "you." Children who acquire the sign
YOU (pointing at one's interlocutor) make similar mistakes - they will point at others to mean themselves, indicating that even something as seemingly explicit as pointing is an arbitrary sign in ASL, like words in a spoken language.