When Did Sign Language Begin?

July 20, 2020


Although no one has a specific answer to this question, gesturing seems to be an instinctive form of human communications from birth. So much so, it easy to assume that humankind adopted crude forms of signing long before spoken language began to develop. Paleontologists theorize that gesturing should have preceded speech as the physical development of voice space in hominids could only accommodate a limited number of differentiated sounds. Consequently, the use of sign language could have evolved millions to hundreds of thousand years ago as hunter-gathers began to explore their surroundings. Just as military personnel are trained in using silent gestures to quietly communicate without being heard during a strategic maneuver, early humans likely acquired intratribal forms of understandable physical communications to stalk their prey.

Due to an obvious lack of direct evidence, it is difficult for scholars to study the earliest emergence of language in humans. Since archaeological evidence suggests early hominids lacked the anatomical prerequisites to have vocal communications, any sounds produced would not have exceeded that of the great apes. The creation of human language and verbal systems of communications likely required evolutionary vocal restructuring and the cerebral development of a language faculty in the mid-brain. Nonetheless, the obvious shortage of empirical evidence caused the Linguistic Society of Paris to ban all existing and future debates on the subject in 1866. Moreover, it is equally impossible to know exactly when the first humans were diagnosed as being deaf, but written record of hearing loss dates to 1550 B.C. in Ancient Egypt.

In 44 B.C., Quintus Pedius, a teenage Roman painter, became the first named deaf person in history as well as the first recorded education of a deaf child. The condition of deafness had been vehemently argued by Socrates and Aristotle, with the latter believing that it was impossible to reason without the ability to hear and that deaf people were only capable of primitive thoughts. This mistakenly led the Ancient Greek philosopher to coin the term “deaf and dumb”. Much later, the term “dumb” took on an offensive meaning as someone who is “silent” was not capable of communicating intelligently. According to the National Association of the Deaf, today we should use the lowercase “deaf” when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and a capitalized first letter spelling of “Deaf” when referring to the group of deaf people who now share both a language (American Sign Language) and a unique culture.

In the mid-1700s, a French abbot named Charles Michel de l’Eppe founded the first public school for deaf children. By having his students bring informal signing used in their homes, de l’Eppe created the world’s first manual alphabet known as Old French Sign Language (LSF), which has over a 100K modern-day native signers. As the precursor of American Sign Language (ASL), a Yale divinity student named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet borrowed from European sign language to create the American School for the Deaf in 1817. ASL evolved as a natural language with dialects and ASL-based creoles that are now used in many countries around the world. With approximately half-a-million users, ASL has been learned in some areas of the world as a second language to serve as an efficient lingua franca. Although not a spoken language, ASL speakers constitute the third-largest language population in the United States and ASL interpreters are now required in courts of law as well as recommended for important meetings, seminars, broadcasts, training sessions, and other events where inclusiveness is considered important.

To learn more about ASL interpretation services, visit the American Sign Language page on the ProLingo website.

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