History of Signing as an Ordinary Language

May 17, 2019


An ordinary or natural language is any language that has evolved without premeditated planning through the repetitive use and evolution of its vocabulary. All varieties of world languages are ordinary languages and these natural languages take on different forms, such as through signing or speech.  Even though it has its own native speakers, a constructed auxiliary language, such as Esperanto, is not considered to be a natural language. Polish linguist L.L. Zamenhoff selected elements from other natural languages rather than allow fluctuations in Esperanto's vocabulary and syntax to occur naturally.

After more than 2300 years, the Greek philosopher Aristotle remains one of history's most influential people. Aristotle contributed to almost every field of human knowledge and left the world in his debt for pioneering contributions to the scientific method. However, Aristotle's theory that people can only learn through hearing spoken words, led to legislation that labeled the deaf as "non persons", as the Greek philosopher believed they obviously could not be educated. Ignorance reigned for centuries before an Italian mathematician Geronimo Cardano proved his deaf son could learn from written words.

Although there is no universal sign language, it is one of the earliest and most basic forms of communication. The exact beginnings of American Sign Language (ASL) are not clear, but it developed as an ordinary language completely separate and distinct from English. Sign language is a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, but with distinct rules that differs from the spoken words. Sign language is expressed in real time through movements of the hands and face. It is the primary language of many deaf or hard of hearing Americans as well as used by many hearing-capable people to communicate as well.

Sign languages contain all the features of a language, such as word formation, pronunciation, and word order. As is the case with other languages, sign language has specific ways of expressing ideas, and incorporates a fingerspelling alphabet used for proper names. After centuries of frustration, Aristotle's oralism was proven to be a dismal failure and sign language emerged as the native communication and education method for deaf people around the world. Today, laws guarantee the deaf access to information by any means, which can include sign language, finger spelling, pantomime, lip reading, computers, hearing aids, and other methods. Moreover, American Sign Language has taken its rightful place beside other ordinary languages.

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