Dr. William Stokoe, Jr.

William Stokoe (1919-2000) is a renowned linguistics pioneer of American Sign Language (ASL) and is considered the "father of ASL linguistics" by the ASL community.

Gallaudet University (formerly Gallaudet College) hired William Stokoe as the chair of the English department in 1955. He began his career teaching English to deaf students. He had little experience with Deaf people, their culture, and language (ASL).

In the 1960s, he observed sign language used by Gallaudet students. He studied and discovered that it contained linguistic features (phonology, morphology, syntax, and all) like any spoken language. He proposed that it was indeed a true language of its own.

In the beginning, he did not receive much supports that he received some harsh criticism as well as ridicule from his colleagues. Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, oralism had been the means of deaf education and sign language was looked down on and even was prohibited in educational settings. Before his time, ASL used to be regarded as a set of gestures or a "simplified" or "broken English". It was not considered a language of its own.

However, his works disproved them scientifically and revolutionized the notion of language when he presented his groundbreaking paper Sign Language Structure in 1960 and also co-authored Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles in 1965. He founded the journal Sign Language Studies in 1972.

Since the 1970s, studies and research have been widely expanded. He retired from Gallaudet University in 1984.

He received a honorary degree for his work in ASL linguistics from Gallaudet University in May 1988. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Madonna University in Michigan, U.S. He died of bone cancer in 2000.


Maher, Jane and Oliver Sacks. Seeing in Sign: The Works of William Stokoe. 1996.

Lane, Harlan L. Recent Perspectives on American Sign Language. 1980.

Stokoe, William. Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech. 2001.

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