Home Page   
EDinformatics Home
Home Page
Today is
Great Inventions --Great Inventors

American Sign Language

American Sign Language is the dominant sign language in the United States, anglophone Canada and parts of Mexico. American Sign Language is usually abbreviated ASL. Although it has also been known as Ameslan or Amslan, these abbreviations are not generally used and are considered obsolete. As with other sign languages, or more properly, visual-gestural-spatial languages, its grammar and syntax are separate and distinct from the spoken language(s) in its area of influence. There has been no reliable survey of the number of people who use ASL as their primary language; estimates range from 200,000 to 2 million [1] (http://library.gallaudet.edu/dr/faq-asl-rank.html).


History of ASL

ASL stands for American Sign Language. It is used primarily by Deaf Americans. ASL is a visual language, and is a full and actual language. ASL is not translated directly from English. It has its own syntax and grammar and was first considered as a world language in 1998. ASL originated in the early 19th century at the first school for the deaf in America, the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf (http://www.asd-1817.org/)), established by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. The first deaf teacher at the school, Laurent Clerc, came from France, and many of the first students were from Martha's Vineyard, where hereditary deafness was common. The influence of Old French Sign Language on ASL is clear, and linguists believe that Martha's Vineyard Sign Language merged with OFSL and various 'home-sign' systems to create ASL. Most people who use ASL are part of the Deaf community. They have their own culture and set of social norms.

Linguistics of ASL

ASL is a natural language as proved to the satisfaction of the linguistic community by William Stokoe. It is a manual language meaning that the information is expressed not with combinations of sounds but with combinations of handshapes, movements of the hands, arms and body, and facial expressions. It is used natively and predominantly by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing of the United States and Canada.


Although it often seems as though the signs are meaningful of themselves, in fact they can be as arbitrary as words in spoken language. For example, hearing children often make the mistake of using "you" to refer to themselves, since others refer to them as "you." Children who acquire the sign YOU (pointing at one's interlocutor) make similar mistakes  they will point at others to mean themselves, indicating that even something as seemingly explicit as pointing is an arbitrary sign in ASL, like words in a spoken language.

However, Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi have modified the common theory that signs can be self-explanatory by grouping signs into three categories:

  • Transparent: Non-signers can usually correctly guess the meaning
  • Translucent: Meaning makes sense to non-signers once it is explained
  • Opaque: Meaning cannot be guessed by non-signers

Klima and Bellugi used American Sign Language in formulating that classification. The theory that signs are self-explanatory can be conclusively disproved by the fact that non-signers cannot understand fluent, continuous sign language. The majority of signs are opaque.


The grammar of ASL uses spatial locations, motion, and context to indicate syntax. For example:

  • If a signer signs a noun and then points to a certain spot, he or she can refer back to that noun by pointing again to the same spot.
  • To intensify the meaning a verb or adjective (e.g., to say "very calm" instead of "calm"), the signer modulates the way it is expressed, first holding his or her hands rigid and then making the rest of the sign more quickly than usual.
  • Raised eyebrows can indicate a yes-or-no question, while lowered eyebrows indicate a wh-question.

'Baby Sign'

(For complete article see Baby Sign)

In recent years, it has been shown that ASL has had a positive impact on the intellect of hearing children who are exposed to it. When infants are taught the language early, parents are able to respond accordingly to the infant at a developmental stage when verbal speech, which requires extremely fine control of many interacting parts, is not yet able to be formed. The ability of the child to actively communicate and interact earlier than would otherwise be possible accelerates the cognitive development of the child.

Primates and ASL

ASL has allegedly been taught to chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. Several of the animals have been said to have mastered more than one hundred signs, though not all agree with the ability of the primates to sign. For example, when the Washoe research team asked the handlers of the chimp to write signs down whenever they witnessed them being produced by Washoe, the hearing people on the team turned in long lists of signs while the only deaf native speaker of ASL on the team turned in blank lists. She explained that what she saw were not signs at all, but simply gestures. Further fomenting the controversy, the researchers in the studies of Koko and Washoe refused to share their raw data with the scientific community. The theory that non-human primates have learned ASL, or that they are even capable of learning ASL or any other natural language, is not currently accepted by linguists. However, research on the ability of some primates to learn symbol systems continues and has shown interesting results.

See also

External link

  • HandSpeak (http://www.handspeak.com/) a leading online website on ASL, International Sign, Gestures, Baby Sign, and more.
  • About ASL (http://www.deaflibrary.org/asl.html) - article at deaflibrary.org (http://www.deaflibrary.org)
  • ASL Grammar (http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/grammar.htm)
  • About Laurent Clerc (http://deafness.about.com/cs/featurearticles/a/laurentclerc.htm/)


  • Stokoe, William C. (1976). Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. Linstok Press. ISBN 0932130011.



Who were the Greatest Thinkers?


See Edinformatics List of

Great Thinkers --Great Minds











Questions or Comments?
Copyright 1999 EdInformatics.com
All Rights Reserved.