Thursday, August 25, 2016

History of Sign Language in the United States

By Jennifer Uhlarik

One of the things I love as an author is the research it takes to pull of a historical story. It can be frustrating at times to find the information one needs, but exhilarating when you ferret out the elusive details.

In writing Mountain Echoes, I chose to include a twelve-year-old deaf boy, as well as a woman who worked at a school for the deaf. All this meant I would need to research deafness and deaf education in the mid-1800’s.

Down through history, different cultures treated deafness in varying ways. For instance, the ancient Egyptians saw the deaf as having special abilities that hearing people didn’t possess, and therefore, they were respected and treated kindly. Conversely, the ancient Greeks viewed the deaf as a burden, and most, if not all, deaf citizens were killed. In later times, the Spanish viewed deafness as a result of the sins of the parents being visited upon their children, so the afflicted children were often sent to live in monasteries with the priests, who could hopefully save their souls. Thankfully for these children, the priests often worked to educate them and even teach them rudimentary means of speech.

Abbe de l'Epee
In the 1700’s, a French cleric in Paris—Abbe de l’Epee—became interested in a rough system of signing that two deaf girls displayed while he visited a local parishioner. This deaf children were able to convey ideas to one another with hand signals, now known as Old French Sign Language. Abbe de l’Epee used their system as a starting place to create his own system, signing exact words rather than ideas. Old Signed French, as l’Epee’s language is known, was used in a school which he started, and it was so helpful to the deaf community that many of his graduates went on to start schools of their own in other locations across Europe.


Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
In the early 1800’s, a minister in the United States by the name of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet became interested in finding a way to help his deaf neighbor learn to communicate. Having heard of the success of deaf schools across Europe, he traveled there to learn what he could. It was on this trip in 1816 where he met Laurent Clerc, a recent graduate of one of the deaf schools. Clerc graciously taught Gallaudet about deaf education and signing, and Gallaudet convinced Clerc to return to America with him to aid in starting the first deaf school in the country.


Laurent Clerc
The two men took l’Epee’s Old Signed French system and remade it into a form of sign language better suited for the understanding of American students. The new system employed signs for individual words, just like l’Epee’s system, and also used rules of grammar. Gallaudet set up the first deaf school, called the American Asylum, in Hartford, Connecticut, and Clerc stayed on to be the first teacher of the deaf in the country. What the two men found was the students learned their new system, now known as Old Signed English, but after formal classes let out, they would shorten their signed sentences to simple phrases that didn’t employ the strict rules of grammar they used in the classroom. This more natural pattern is what we now know as American Sign Language.

Just as it was in Europe, as students graduated from Gallaudet’s school, which was later renamed the American School for the Deaf, many went on to found their own schools across the growing nation. By the early 1860’s, the number of deaf schools had grown to twenty-two.

Edward Miner Gallaudet
When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet died, his youngest son, Edward, opted to carry on his father’s legacy. Edward went into teaching, taking a position with his father’s school and was later asked to become superintendent of the Columbia School for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind in Washington, D.C. He had been considering the idea of opening a college for the deaf, so he presented his idea to Congress, who approved the idea. Edward took the position at what would become Gallaudet University, the only university for the deaf in the world.



Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.

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Ride into adventures alongside nine determined women of yesteryear whose acts of compassion and bravery attract male attention. Marcy helps displaced Indians. Emmy tends wounds at Fort Snelling. Ronnie stows away on a cattle drive. Daisy disguises herself as a Pony Express rider. Elinor becomes an abolitionist. Mae tames wild horses. Hannah gets help for accident victims. Lucy’s curiosity unnerves criminals. Kate nurses soldiers on the battlefield. Will real dangers douse the sparks of love?




8 comments:

  1. Very interesting post! I lived in the DC area for nearly 25 years, so I'm familiar with Galludet University, but didn't know the full history. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Linda. Thank you for stopping by!

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  2. I have always been interested in sign language since I read a biography of Helen Keller when I was in elementary school. I didn't know much of the history, though. Thank you for sharing what you learned.

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    1. I believe Helen Keller may have been the inspiration for my childhood interest in sign language as well, Susan. I'm so glad you enjoyed my post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. A great post about the history of sign language. I have several friends who does signing. Thank you for enlightening us on the history of sign language.

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    1. Hi Marilyn, I am so glad you enjoyed my post. Thank you for your comment. I have a friend from my high school days whose sister is deaf. It always fascinated me to watch them all sign to each other. Having written Mountain Echoes and done the research into the topic has reignited my interest in sign language.

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  4. I love watching someone do sign language, it's so beautiful. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, chappydebbie! I also love watching people sign.

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