"The Perigee Visual Dictionary of Signing"
History of Sign Language
It was in the sixteenth century that Geronimo Cardano, a physician of Padua, in northern Italy, proclaimed that deaf people could be taught to understand written combinations of symbols by associating them with the thing they represented. The first book on teaching sign language to deaf people that contained the manual alphabet was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo de Bonet.
In 1755 Abbe Charles Michel de LEpee of Paris founded the first free school for deaf people. He taught that deaf people could develop communication with themselves and the hearing world through a system of conventional gestures, hand signs, and fingerspelling. He created and demonstrated a language of signs whereby each would be a symbol that suggested the concept desired.
The abbe was apparently a very creative person, and the way he developed his sign language system was by first recognizing, then learning the signs that were already being used by a group of deaf people in Paris, To this knowledge he added his own creativeness which resulted in a signed version of spoken French. He paved the way for deaf people to have a more standardized language of their own--one which would effectively bridge the gap between the hearing and nonhearing worlds.
Another prominent deaf educator of the same period (1778) was Samuel Heinicke of Leipzig, Germany. Heinicke did not use the manual method of communication but taught speech and speechreading. He established the first public school for deaf people that achieved government recognition. These two methods (manual and oral) were the forerunners of today's concept of total communication. Total communication espouses the use of all means of available communication, such as sign language, gesturing, fingerspelling, speechreading, speech, hearing aids, reading, writing, and pictures.
In America the Great Plains Indians developed a fairly extensive system of signing, but this was more for intertribal communication than for deaf people, and only vestiges of it remain today. However, it is interesting to note some similarities existing between Indian sign language and the present system.
America owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an energetic Congregational minister who became interested in helping his neighbor's young deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell. He traveled to Europe in 1815, when he was twenty-seven, to study methods of communicating with deaf people. While in England he met Abbe Roche Ambroise Sicard, who invited him to study at his school for deaf people in Paris. After several months Gallaudet returned to the United States with Laurent Clerc, a deaf sign language instructor from the Paris school.
In 1817 Gallaudet founded the nation's first school for deaf people, in Hartford, Connecticut, and Clerc became the United States' first deaf sign language teacher. Soon schools for deaf people began to appear in several states. Among them was the New York School for the Deaf, which opened its doors in 1818. In 1820 a school was opened in Pennsylvania, and a total of twenty-two schools had been established throughout the United States by the year 1863.
An important milestone in the history of education for deaf' people was the founding of Gallaudet College, in Washington, D.C. in 1864, which remains the only liberal arts college for deaf' people in the United States and the world.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet passed on his dream of a college for deaf people to his son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, who with the help of Amos Kendall made the dream a reality. Edward Miner Gallaudet became the first president of the new college.
Today we are fortunate to have one of the most complete and expressive sign language systems of any country in the world. We owe much to the French sign system, from which many of our present-day signs, though modified, have been derived.
Interest continues to grow in sign language, and it is now the fourth most used language in the United States. Many sign language classes are offered in communities, churches, and colleges.