The Origins of American Sign Language in the United States | Start ASL (2023)

Updated /0 Comments/in About ASL, Deaf Culture, Deaf History, Famous Deaf People /by Katelyn Cheng

The Origins of American Sign Language in the United States | Start ASL (1)

There are many Deaf actors and movies that have American Sign Language. Not only are Deaf people have a successful career in acting. Deaf people are successful in other ways not just in the media industry. There are several Deaf people and hearing people who have supported the Deaf community that have made Deaf history. In this article, I will focus on the history and establishment of American Sign Language and of Deaf schools in the United States: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Alice Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc. Read below to learn who they are and how they made an impact.

Alice Cogswell – Alice was one of the most symbolic influencer in Deaf history. She was born on August 21, 1805 in Connecticut. When she was 2 years old, she got sick with a type of meningitis known as “spotted fever”. As a result, she become profoundly deaf and eventually lost her ability to speak. Alice was very smart and she enjoyed numerous hobbies such as sewing and dancing. Alice had brothers and sisters whom most of them did not talk to Alice cause she could not speak yet. Her father, Mason Fitch Cogswell, was one of the first surgeons to remove cataracts from the eyes. He was neighbors with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who was the other symbolic influencer that changed education for Deaf people in Deaf history. When Alice was 9 years old, she met Gallaudet. Alice was sitting outside and watching her brothers and sisters play. During Galladuet’s family visit in Connecticut, he noticed that Alice was sitting alone and not playing with the other kids. He asked one of the siblings about Alice. The child told Gallaudet that the girl sitting by herself is named Alice and she is deaf. That is when Gallaudet approached Alice and met her for the first time.

Alice inspired him to devote his life to educating the deaf. Gallaudet observed that Alice was very smart despite her hearing loss and inability to speak, he wanted to teach Alice how to communicate. Gallaudet attempted to communicate with Alice by pointing to his hat and writing H-A-T in the dirt. Alice was having some success learning how to spell and read from Gallaudet. However, Gallaudet didn’t know the most effective way of educating a deaf child. He and Alice’s father knew a formal school would be the best option for her, but a school for the deaf did not exist in the United States. Gallaudet then traveled to Europe to learn the most successful methods used to teach deaf children. He brought back with him Laurent Clerc, a deaf educator who taught using French Sign Language. Together, they established the American Asylum for Deaf-Mutes in 1817, which is now known as the American School for the Deaf. Alice was the first to enroll in this history-making school. Alice died in 1830 at the age of twenty-five, just thirteen days after her father died. Alice was one of the best students. She wrote many papers on religious topics. Alice learned to sign more and more, she was able to communicate easily with her deaf peers and teachers. Alice was fascinated on how music worked and she loved to dance at her parents’ parties. As Alice got older she was able to speak a few words, one of the words was “PRETTY”. Alice took advantage to travel to many places after she graduated from American School for the Deaf in 1824. When Alice was 25, her father Mason Cogswell died on December 10, 1830. Shortly after her father died, Alice suffered from delirium and passed away on December 30, 1830. Today, a gorgeous statue of Gallaudet and Alice stands at both the American School for the Deaf and Gallaudet University.

(Video) American Sign Language: The Complete History (ASL)

The Origins of American Sign Language in the United States | Start ASL (2)Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet – Thomas Gallaudet, who was hearing, was born on December 10, 1787 in Philadelphia. His family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, the home of his maternal grandparents and where Galladuet attended grammar school. As a young boy, Gallaudet was very bright and intelligent. He attended Yale University in 1802 when he was 15 years old. He was the youngest student to graduate with honors three years later. He tried his hand at law, teaching, and business, but finally decided on the ministry. He attended Andover Theological Seminary from 1811 to 1814.

While Gallaudet was visiting his family in Connecticut, he encountered and met Alice Cogswell who became profoundly deaf from an illness. Alice’s father, Mason Cogswell and Gallaudet believed Alice should attend a formal school with proper education for the deaf, but no deaf school existed in the United States. Gallaudet’s goal to serve as an itinerant preacher was put on hold and he was more motivated to find the proper education for Alice. In 1815, Cogswell asked Gallaudet if he can travel to Europe to study methods for teaching deaf students, especially those of the Braidwood family in England; however the Braidwoods was conservative to share knowledge of their oral communication method. Gallaudet was also not satisfied that the oral method produced desirable results. During Gallaudet’s attendance at an event in Great Britain, he met the Abbe Sicard, head of the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets in Paris, and two of its deaf faculty members, Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu. In 1755, a French guy named Abbe Charles-Michel de I’Epee founded the first deaf institute in Paris, whom Sicard invited Gallaudet to Paris to study the school’s method of teaching deaf students using manual communication. Gallaudet studied teaching methodology under Sicard, learning sign language from Massieu and Clerc, who were both highly educated graduates of the school.

In 1816, Gallaudet and Clerc returned to the United States, Gallaudet began seeking financial support for a school for the deaf and mute, which had already been incorporated by the Connecticut Legislature. In 1817, the school, inspired by the ability of Alice Cogswell to overcome her disability, opened in Hartford. In 1864, today’s Deaf university, known as Gallaudet University, was founded. By 1830, when ill health forced him to retire, the school had 140 pupils, and its effectiveness had drawn public notice throughout the United States.

Gallaudet turned down offers to join university faculties or to lead other special schools so that he could devote himself to writing books for young children and promoting popular education. He worked on a speller and a dictionary and wroteBook on the Soul(1831),Scripture Biography(1833), andEveryday Christian (1835). These, along with numerous journal and magazine articles, gained him worldwide recognition. The care of the insane became Gallaudet’s new interest. In 1838, he became chaplain to the Retreat for the Insane in Hartford. From 1837 to 1844, he was also a volunteer chaplain of the Hartford county jail. In 1821, Gallaudet had married Sophia Fowler, a deaf-mute and former pupil. They had eight children, one of whom, Edward, participated in founding the Gallaudet College for the deaf in Washington, D.C. Thomas Gallaudet died in Hartford on September 10, 1851.

The Origins of American Sign Language in the United States | Start ASL (3)Laurent Clerc – Laurent Clercplayed a significant part in the history of American Sign Language and in Deaf history. Clerc was born on December 26, 1785 inLa Balme-les-Grottes,Isère, a village on the northeastern edge of Lyon to Joseph-François Clerc and Marie-Élisabeth Candy in the small village of La Balme, where his father was the mayor. He was born hearing, but when he was one year old, he fell from a chair into a fire. As a result, he lost both his hearing and his sense of smell, and he suffered from a severe burn and obtained a permanent scar on the right side of his cheek. Clerc’s family believed that his deafness and lost of smell was from the fire; however, Clerc believed it was from birth. His sign name was based on the scar, which is performed with the manual alphabet for “U”, stroked twice downward on the right cheek.

(Video) The Origin of ASL - A Brief History

At the age of 12, Laurent entered the Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris where he excelled in his studies. After he graduated, the school asked him to stay on as an assistant teacher. He was a dedicated teacher; and he was promoted to teach the highest class.

Meanwhile, in America, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was studying to be a minister when he met a young deaf girl, Alice Cogswell. Since there werre no school for the deaf in America, that is when Gallaudet decided to travel to Europe to seek ideas on how to teach deaf people. While he was there, he met a French educator of the deaf who invited him to go to Paris to spend three months learning at the Royal Institution for the Deaf, the school where Laurent Clerc was teaching.

Gallaudet accepted the offer, and went to the Royal Institution for the Deaf, where Clerc became his Sign Language teacher. The two worked and studied well together. When the time came for Gallaudet to return to America, he asked Clerc to come with him. Clerc accepted on one condition: that he would stay in America only a short time.

The two men set sail on June 18, 1816. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean took 52 days; however, Clerc and Gallaudet put the time to good use. Clerc studied English, and Gallaudet studied sign language. They discussed the school for the deaf which they planned to open. On the long trip, they had many conversations about education and deafness. The year after they arrived, they founded a school for the deaf in Harford, Connecticut.The Origins of American Sign Language in the United States | Start ASL (4)

At the school, Clerc led a busy life. He taught signs to Principal Gallaudet; he taught the pupils; and he taught hearing men who came to the school to study deaf education. At that time, the state would only pay for each student to stay at the school for five years. Therefore, Clerc had to teach his pupils as much as he could as quickly as possible. He and Gallaudet also assisted in founding other schools for the deaf.

(Video) History of the United States of America in ASL

Laurent Clerc was the first deaf person to stand before Congress and the first deaf person to stand before the President of the United States. Once, Clerc came to Washington, D.C. because he was asked to appear before the Congress of the United States. He met President James Monroe, who became interested in Sign Language when he observed Clerc signing.

In 1819, Clerc married Eliza Crocker Boardman, one of his pupils. They had six children. He retired from teaching in 1858. Although he had intended to return to France, he never did. He died on July 18, 1869 in the United States. One of the best impressions Clerc has left in the history of sign language is that 58% of American Sign Language can be attributed to his teachings and he was a French teacher called “The Apostle of theDeafin America”.

The Origins of American Sign Language in the United States | Start ASL (5)

Today’s ASL was strongly influenced by Deaf students who graduated from American School for the Deaf, who passed down the sign language and Deaf cultural experiences. Furthermore, ASL became one of the most used languages in the United States.


(Video) History of American Sign Language (ASL and English voiceover)

(Video) Origins of ASL | Pioneers of Deaf Education in USA | The Origins of Deaf Education | Sign Language


Who started ASL in America? ›

The history of American Sign Language really started in 1814 with Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Gallaudet was a minister from Hartford, Connecticut. His neighbor, Mason Fitch Cogswell, had a deaf daughter who was nine years old named Alice Cogswell.

When was ASL first accepted as its own language? ›

The most prominent event was the publication of Sign Language Structure in 1965 by William Stokoe, a linguist, showing that ASL was a bona-fide language. The first known book on sign language was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo de Bonet.

Is ASL derived from American English? ›

ASL is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language, with its own rules for pronunciation, word formation, and word order.

What is the origin of ASL? ›

ASL originated in the early 19th century in the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford, Connecticut, from a situation of language contact. Since then, ASL use has been propagated widely by schools for the deaf and Deaf community organizations.

Who first created ASL? ›

In the 1800s, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet developed American Sign Language (ASL). Inspired by a desire to help his neighbour's deaf daughter, Gallaudet went to Europe to meet with Laurent Clerc, a deaf instructor of sign language.

Who proved ASL was a language? ›

Before William Stokoe's groundbreaking research, American Sign Language (ASL) was erroneously viewed as a pantomime, a poor substitute for spoken speech. Now ASL is recognized as a language with its own syntax, morphology, and structure.

Who proved ASL is a real language? ›

William C. Stokoe Jr.

How did ASL start in America? ›

The standards for ASL began to take form in 1817 when Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc created the first official school for the Deaf in the United States. American Sign Language along with the standards they set were then spread throughout the United States and Canada.

Why was ASL not considered a language? ›

Opponents say it should not satisfy such requirements because the language is used in the United States and therefore is not foreign, and because it has no literature, in the conventional sense of a written language.

What country did ASL originate from? ›

In France, Old French Sign Language Paris was home to a small deaf community that signed among themselves. This was referenced by l'Abbé Charles Michel de l'Épée who created the first school for the deaf in Paris in the 18th century.

Do Native Americans use ASL? ›

Native Deaf children were sent to deaf residential schools, where they were taught to use American Sign Language (ASL). Research has shown that Hand Talk is still being used by a small number of deaf and hearing descendants of the Plains Indian cultures.

What ASL means? ›

ASL stands for Age/Sex/Location. ASL is an internet initialism that is a request for personal information. Home. Teen Slang Meanings.

How did deaf culture originate? ›

Deaf Culture was first truly recognized in 1965. The idea that Deaf people had a culture of their own was first written in the Dictionary of American Sign Language by William Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline. This was a huge step for Deaf people.

Who was the first deaf person? ›

c. 44 B.C.: Quintus Pedius is the earliest deaf person in recorded history known by name.

Who was the first deaf teacher? ›

Laurent Clerc
Teacher, co-founder of the first permanent school for the Deaf in North America.
BornDecember 26, 1785 La Balme, France
DiedJuly 18, 1869 (aged 83) Hartford, Connecticut, United States
SpouseEliza Crocker Boardman (1792-1880)

Is ASL recognized as a language? ›

American Sign Language is recognized as a fully developed, autonomous, natural language with distinct grammar, syntax and art form. ASL classes are offered at elementary, secondary and post-secondary level.

Who is known as the father of ASL? ›

French priest Charles-Michel de l'Epee (1712-1789) set a course for change. Centuries after his death, he is still recognized as The Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education.

How did ASL and deaf education begin in the United States? ›

The history of deaf education in the United States began in the early 1800s when the Cobbs School of Virginia, an oral school, was established by William Bolling and John Braidwood, and the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, a manual school, was established by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.

When did ASL begin emerging as a language quizlet? ›

ASL is thought to have originated in the American School for the Deaf, founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Why was American Sign Language founded? Is said to be the fourth most commonly used language in the United States. Where do users of American Sign Language live (what two countries)?

How many words are in ASL? ›

About 10,000 different ASL signs exist that corresponds to English, which has about 200,000 words. How much do ASL interpreters make?

Why does Black ASL exist? ›

Because Black deaf students were prohibited from opportunities to interact with students and teachers on the White Deaf school campuses, this separation contributed to the development of Black ASL, a variety of American Sign Language that's distinctively different from those of white deaf students' signs.

What states recognize ASL as a foreign language? ›

Statewide Universities That Accept ASL
  • Statewide Universities That Accept ASL in.
  • Fulfillment of Foreign Language Requirements. List maintained by. ...
  • ALASKA. University of Alaska (Fairbanks)
  • ARIZONA. Arizona State University. ...
  • ARKANSAS. University of Arkansas (Little Rock)
  • CALIFORNIA. Cabrillo College. ...

Is ASL a natural language to the deaf? ›

While natural languages arise spontaneously and spread by means of unrestricted interaction among people who use them (for example, ASL, which emerged within the North American deaf community), artificial or devised communication systems are invented by specific individuals, such as educators of deaf children.

What country has had the most influence on the creation of ASL? ›

For the invention of ASL, a Frenchman named Laurent Clerc had the most influence after he arrived in the United States in 1816 to spread sign language (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p. 168).

Where is ASL mostly used? ›

ASL is used predominantly in the United States and in many parts of Canada. ASL is accepted by many high schools, colleges, and universities in fulfillment of modern and “foreign” language academic degree requirements across the United States.

Do all deaf people in America use ASL? ›

That's because not all deaf and hard-of-hearing people know sign language. In fact, of the 48 million people in the United States with hearing loss, less than 500,000 — or about 1% — use sign language. Hearing loss is a spectrum, with varying types of loss and communication strategies.

Can you still say Native American? ›

American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native are acceptable and often used interchangeably in the United States; however, Native Peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. To find out which term is best, ask the person or group which term they prefer.

What was the Native American language called? ›

The Indigenous languages of the Americas had widely varying demographics, from the Quechuan languages, Aymara, Guarani, and Nahuatl, which had millions of active speakers, to many languages with only several hundred speakers.

Did Thomas Gallaudet invent ASL? ›

He helped establish American Sign Language by incorporating signs his students brought from home and some of the French signs he learned while studying with Laurent Clerc. The American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817 by Gallaudet and Clerc.

Who is the father of ASL? ›

William Stokoe (1919-2000) is a renowned linguistics pioneer of American Sign Language (ASL) and is considered the "father of ASL linguistics" by the ASL/Deaf community of North America. History of sign language linguistics.

Who were the two major contributors to ASL? ›

Who are the two major contributors to ASL? Laurent Clerc and the Vineyarders. Who is Laurent Clerc? the first deaf teacher in the US & Co-founder of the American School of the deaf in Hartford, CT.

Who invented signing for the deaf? ›

The first person credited with the creation of a formal sign language for the hearing impaired was Pedro Ponce de León, a 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk. His idea to use sign language was not a completely new idea.

Who proved that ASL is a true language? ›

William C. Stokoe Jr.

Who is the God of ASL? ›

To sign God, swipe your dominant hand in front of your head, your thumb touching your forehead, then pulling downward to your chest area. It's like one half of two praying hands. Alternatively, just doing the first part - touching the thumb of a flat open hand to the forehead, is enough to sign God in ASL.

Where is ASL spoken? ›

ASL is used predominantly in the United States and in many parts of Canada. ASL is accepted by many high schools, colleges, and universities in fulfillment of modern and “foreign” language academic degree requirements across the United States.

What did Deaf people do before ASL? ›

However, long before a formal sign language was established, people, both hearing and deaf, had been using hand signs and gestures to communicate. For centuries, monks used hand signs to aid with communication during a vow of silence.

Who is the famous deaf girl? ›

Helen Keller

She is arguably the most famous and recognized deaf person in history. After mastering the use of language, she became a prolific scholar and author, attended Radcliffe College at Harvard University, published two dozen books, and joined the fight for women's suffrage.

What celebrity is deaf? ›

Marlee Matlin is probably one of the most well-known Deaf celebrities out there, but not everyone may know she is deaf.

When did deaf culture begin in America? ›

In the United States, deaf culture was born in Connecticut in 1817 at the American School for the Deaf, when a deaf teacher from France, Laurent Clerc, was recruited by Thomas Gallaudet to help found the new institution.

How did deaf culture begin? ›

Deaf Culture was first truly recognized in 1965. The idea that Deaf people had a culture of their own was first written in the Dictionary of American Sign Language by William Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline. This was a huge step for Deaf people.

Who discovered that ASL was its own language in 1960? ›

In the 1960s, a young English professor at Gallaudet College, William Stokoe, who had studied linguistics, began to look at American Sign Language (ASL) as a linguist and discovered that it was full of regularities and structure, very much like a spoken language.


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4. 50 States of America - First Edition | ASL - American Sign Language
5. The History of Deaf Education and ASL
6. United States of America (ASL)
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