American Sign Language (ASL) is an ordinary sign language of the US and Anglophone Canadian deaf communities which evolved naturally through time without being planned. Just like other languages, ASL is continuously spreading around the world, including to West Africa and Southeast Asia where it serves as a lingua franca. ASL closely resemble French Sign Language (LSF) leading to researchers terming it as a creole of LSF.
History of ASL
In the early nineteenth century, language contact between people from different backgrounds using different sign languages in the US led the American School for the Deaf (ASD), in Hartford, Connecticut to come up with a solution, ASL. At the time, the school’s name was The American Asylum, At Hartford, For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet formed this school after Alice Cogswell, a deaf girl, inspired him through her ability to learn. Gallaudet then traveled to Europe to learn more about sign language and eventually settled for the LSF as the most appropriate to tailor for the US in 1817. After founding ASD, deaf students from different areas came to learn with previous knowledge of their village sign languages. These various languages merged with the LSF model taught at the school and eventually evolved to become the ASL. More ASD like schools sprout out in different regions and ASL started spreading all over the US and eventually to Francophone Canada. ASL became a “true language” after it became official in the 1950s and its use became more widespread including in the civil rights movement meetings.
Classification of ASL
Being a mix of old LSF and several village sign languages, approximately 58% of the modern signs show a common etymological origin with LSF. This figure makes ASL to be a creole in which LSF is the superstrate and the village sign languages are the substrates. However, ASL’s agglutination (like the ability to communicate instantaneously through the head, face, torso, and other body parts) overrides its creole features and makes it unique. For a language to be a dialect of the other, the cognate value should be at least 80%, meaning that ASL has evolved and is no longer a dialect of LSF even though it is its origin. This difference proves the words of Laurent Clerc, ASD’s first teacher, who said that even though he taught LSF, the students also taught him their various village sign languages. Written ASL is not mutually intelligible with other English-speaking nation’s sign languages like British Sign Language (BSL) or Australian Sign Language (Auslan), although spoken languages in these three countries are mutually intelligible.
Writing in ASL
Written ASL dates to the nineteenth century and borrows from the Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian writing system developed in 1825, although no proper writing system exists to date. William Stokoe created the ASL Stokoe notation in 1960 which is alphabetic with a letter for every hand shape, motion, orientation, and position, however, the Stokoe notation has shortcomings as it lacks depiction of facial expressions and is more suited for words and not sentences. In 1974, Valarie Sutton proposed the Sutton SignWriting system which was included in the Unicode Standard. This system included over 5,000 iconic graphs/glyphs and is currently in use in more than 40 countries including Brazil, Ethiopia, and Germany. Sutton SignWriting is present in printed form and people can also produce it electronically, making it easy to use in writing oral languages. Some linguists argue that Sutton SignWriting also has shortcomings as not all its written symbols correspond to spoken words. For English audiences, capitalized English words gloss ASL in spoken form but the written format lacks glossing.
Distribution and Variants of ASL
The whole of Anglo-America uses ASL and earlier missionaries helped the spread of the language throughout West Africa, parts of South America, and Southern Asia. ASL’s comprehension varies in the US, Canada, and other countries that use it, although these variations are easily understandable with negligible difficulties. In the US, this variation is present in the south, which signs slower, and the north that signs faster. Several phonological variations also exist between Canada’s Atlantic and Ontario regions. The US' black deaf community also has their own variation of ASL, which probably evolved because of earlier racial segregation in deaf schools within some states, and consequently led to phonological and some grammatical structure differences. Black ASL use more two-handed signs and a wider signing space.
Internationally, the Bolivian Sign Language (LSB) is a close dialect of ASL and show some similarities with LSF. American missionaries Eleanor and Lloyd Powlison took ASL to Bolivia in 1973, and by 1992 they had published an LSB book that included 90% of ASL signs. Currently, LSB has over 70% of ASL words. The New/Modern Costa Rican Sign language, used by most deaf community born after 1960, is 60% like ASL and the rest Bribri and Brunca Sign Languages. In the Dominican Republic, the deaf community continues to abandon their original sign language and adopt ASL, a situation that makes most of them not fluent in the country’s original sign language.
In Africa most of the Francophone countries have sign language, the Francophone African Sign Language (LSAF), which relates to ASL written in French. These countries are Ivory Coast, Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Gabon, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Niger, and the Central African Republic, among others. The reason why these countries do not use LSF is that American missionary Andrew Foster established most of the deaf schools in the region, except for Algerian Sign Language which is a dialect of LSF.
Other countries with variations of ASL are Greece, Indonesia, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Panama, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Sierra Leone, and Thailand.
Shortcomings That Face the ASL Community
The exact number of ASL users in the US remains a speculation since the US Census has never included the language and therefore the only data source is the National Census of the Deaf Population (NCDP) which Schein and Delk did in 1974. Then, the number of ASL users ranged between 250,000 and 500,000. Currently, confusion of demographics of ASL users comes about because most surveys include all the deaf population, including those who do not use ASL. Such confusion brings about big error margins, thus rendering the data inaccurate. Without an accurate data of ASL community, there can be no effective planning of public and private services that meet the needs of the community.
US administrations continually ignored the ASL community for many years. In 2013, the community mobilized and collected 37,000 signatures in a petition to the White House that aimed to “officially recognize American Sign Language as a community language and a language of instruction in schools.” The White House responded with the message that "there shouldn't be any stigma about American Sign Language" and highlighted the need to not stigmatize the language.
What Is American Sign Language?
American Sign Language is used by anglophone American and Canadian deaf communities.
About the Author
Mark is a student at Maseno University and community commentator in Kenya. Mark also has interests in geography, African history, and international development.
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