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Historical Contexts of Sign Languages



384-322 B.C.: Greek philosopher, Aristotle, pronounced that "Deaf people could not be educated without hearing, people could not learn."

16th Century

In the 16th century, Geronimo Cardano, a physician of Padua, in northern Italy, proclaimed that deaf people could learn and understand via sign communication.
Butterworth, et al., 1995

"In France, a Spanish alphabet of the 16th century was embodied through the labours of Pereira and his deaf pupil Saboureaux de Fontenay, from the original work of the Benedictine monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon (1520-84)." (Cristhley, p. 33)

"Rather earlier the way was prepared by the teachings of Jerome Cardano (1501-75), who rebelled against the current acceptance of Aristotle's teaching, that connected thought was impossible without speech." (Critchley, p. 33)

17th Century

Juan Pablo de Bonet published the first book on teaching sign language to deaf people that contained the manual alphabet in 1620. -- Butterworth, et al., 1995 Though, sign language was already instinctively developed by deaf signers.

18th Century / Romantic Period of Art (1780-1850)

Abbe L'Epee

Abbe Charles Michel de L'Epee of Paris founded the first free school for deaf people in 1755. He demonstrated that deaf people could develop communication with themselves and the hearing world through a system of conventional gestures, hand signs, and fingerspelling. He first recognized and learned the signs that were already being used by deaf people in Paris and developed his sign system. He added a signed version of spoken French.
Butterworth, et al., 1995

Critchley (p. 33) noted that Charles Michel (the Abbe de l'Epee, 1712-89) opened the school for the deaf in Paris in 1759.

"A prominent deaf educator, Samuel Heinicke (1778) of Leipzig, Germany established the first public school for deaf people that achieved government recognition. He did not use the manual method of communication but taught speech and speechreading. 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."
Butterworth, et al., 1995

19th Century

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

1815: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Congregational minister who helped his neighbor's young deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell, traveled to Europe in 1815, to study methods of education for the deaf. In England, Abbe Roche Ambroise Sicard invited him to his school for deaf in Paris. After several months in Paris, Gallaudet returned to the United States with Laurent Clerc, a deaf sign language teacher.
Butterworth, et al., 1995

Gallaudet and Clerc

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the first American public school for deaf students in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Laurent Clerc became the United States' first deaf sign language teacher. Consequently, the schools for deaf people began to populate in several states till 1863.

Milan 1880

A pre-planned resolution was passed that sign language was to be forbidden in favor of speech at International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy. Eventualy, it had made an enormous impact on the lives and an education of sign language users until the 1960s when ASL was recognized as a true, natural language.

Baseball Signals

William "Dummy" Hoy (1862-1961), the first deaf Major League baseball player, was the reason umpires adopted hand signals: "out", "safe", and "strike".

Football Huddle

1894: The Gallaudet University football team invented the football huddle to keep the opponents from eavesdropping on the quarterback in American Sign Language.

20th Century

International Sign

1924: Comite International des Sports des Sourds (CISS) was founded in Paris on August 16th during the first World Games for the Deaf held in Paris, France on August 10th to 17th, with six nations - Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Holland, and Poland - participating in the competitions in Athletics, Cycling, Football (Soccer), Shooting and Swimming. (CISS Handbook 1975-85) The Gestuno (now International Sign) that was developed and used by Deaf Signers at this first international sports event and is continued to use till today.


1951: The First World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) took place in Rome, Italy, with participants from 25 countries. The Deaf were able to discuss and decide on the Constitution in Gestuno (now International Sign). (WFD) The International Sign and English are the official languages of the WFD.

Linguistic Book

1960: William Stokoe of United States published a first linguistic book of American Sign Language as a language.

1970: Linda Bove (Deaf Signer) was a guest for the American children's popular TV show, "Sesame Street" in 1970. Eventually, she became a regular actress in 1976.

1979: Klima and Bellugi conducted a first linguistic research on the American Sign Language.

Phyllis French was the first Deaf Signer to win a Tony award (the Best Actress), for playing a "Sarah" role in the play, "Children of a Lesser God".

Diana, Princess of Wales

1983: Diana, Princess of Wales, who accepted an invitation to be the Royal Patron of the British Deaf Association in 1983, later studied British Sign Language (BSL). -- BDA

The Smurfs

1983: "The Smurfs" became the first cartoon to use sign language in America on TV. The "Smurfing in Sign Language" show had the highest ratings that "The Smurfs" had ever had. -- World Around You, April 1984

Oscar Award

1986/87:Marlee Matlin (hard-of-hearing Signer, 21) became the first deaf Signer to win the "Best Actress" Oscar award for playing "Sarah" role in the film, "Children of a Lesser God".

ASL Recognized in Manitoba

1988: On December 6th in Winnipeg, Canada, a private member's resoultion was passed unanimously which officially recognizes the cultural uniqueness of the deaf community and American Sign Language (ASL) as a distinctive language of deaf people in Manitoba. (News release, 1988)

ASL Recognized in Alberta

1990: MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) Bill Payne of Calgary proposed Motion 216: "Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the Government, given the cultural uniqueness of Alberta's deaf community and the linguistic uniqueness of American Sign Language, to recognize American Sign Language as a language of the deaf in Alberta; and to incorporate it into Alberta's grade school and post-secondary curriculum as an available language of instruction." The Legislature passed the motion on June 19th, 1990. -- Souvenir, DWW archives [Image source: JAL Archives] Alberta School for the Deaf students and staff with Bill Payne, a Member of Legislative Assembly (in gray suit standing in the left front row).

SL Recognized in Slovak Republic

1995: The National Council of the Slovak Republic passed a law recognizing "Sign Language as a language of communication of the Deaf" June 26th, 1995. -- WFD News, April 1996

SL Recognized in Finland

1995: The Sign Language was recognized in the Finnish Constitution in August.

SL Recognized in Uganda

1995: On October 8th, 1995, the sign language was recognized and included in Uganda's new Constitution after the Uganda National Association of the Deaf and its allies campaigned to promote sign language awareness in Uganda. -- WFD News, April 1996

First Hearing Signer

1995: Alla Kliouka-Schaffer, a hearing Russian actress and fluent Signer of Deaf parents, won the "Green Apple" (an equivalent to the America's Oscar) award for the "Best Actress" in Russia on Nov. 8, 1995. Following her acceptance speech, she returned the award to the moderator to hold, then continued her speech in Russian sign language for her deaf parents in the audience, which made a shocking impact on the audience, earned her standing ovations and made a great inspiration to many people in Russia. It brought a headline in many nationwide newspapers, magazines and television news shows. -- JAL Archives

First Deaf Signer

1996: First deaf Signer was elected to the Uganda parliament as Member of Parliament in Africa South of the Sahara. -- UNAD

Best Actress Award

1997: Alla Kliouka, who is hearing Signer of Deaf parents, won the Best Actress award on June 13 at the Sochi Film Festival in Russia for her role in the movie, "From Hell to Hell".

Eldridge v. British Columbia

1997: The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in the Eldridge v. British Columbia case on October 9th that sign language interpreters must be provided in the health care services across Canada.

Royal Visit

1988: Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry visited the Burnaby South Secondary School and the Provincial School for the Deaf on March 24, 1998, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. At the Michael J. Fox theatre in the opening, six students performed the "God Save the Queen" in American Sign Language, as well as the "O Canada" at the end of the event.

SL Recognized in Czech

1988: In early June, the Czech parliament passed a bill that Czech Sign Language was officially recognized as the first language of the Deaf people in Czech Republic. Deaf people have the right to get 24-hour sign language interpreting service at no charge. Deaf children have the right to get education in their native sign language. In addition, under the law, parents of deaf children have the right to attend sign language classes at no charge. Although, the law didn't include the interpreting in high schools, universitites, and courts. -- From 'Gong' magazine editor to DWW

Thai SL Recognized in Thailand

1999: Thai Sign Language is now acknowledged as "the national language of deaf people in Thailand" in August. The Minister of Education signed a resolution on behalf of the Royal Thai Government in August, 1999.

Venezuelan SL Recognized in Venezuela

1999: The government of Venezuela officially recognized Venezuela Sign Language as Deaf people's language in the national Constitution on November 12th.

21st Century

SL Program in Schools

2000: The public school board approved the second-language program in mid-June in Alberta, Canada, after lobbying for sign language courses and drawing up a curriculum that public schools could provide American Sign Language. Edmonton high school students studied ASL as a second language, beginning in the fall. Stuart Wachowicz, the district's curriculum supervisor, said that the second-language program was the first of its kind in Canada.

New Zealand SL Recognized

2003: "The government has signalled its intention to recognise New Zealand Sign Language as the third official language of New Zealand. This week Cabinet agreed to the introduction of a NZ Sign Language Bill to Parliament by the end of the year." -- Media Statement, October 24. The census data shows that NZSL is used by 28,000 New Zealanders, and among those there are at least 210,000 deaf people in New Zealand.


  • "CISS Handbook 1975-85"
  • Butterworth, Rod R. and Flodin, Mickey. "The Perigee Visual Dictionary of Signing". The Berkley Publishing Group. 1995
  • Fang, Irving; Toulette, Emmanuelle; Golda, Gregory J. "A Media Time Line" compilation.
  • Lapiak, Jolanta. Material archives.
  • "WFD News"

  • Compilation Copyright © 2003 Jolanta Lapiak, HandSpeak