View Full Version : Is American Sign Language a real language?

07-09-05, 23:30
In my opinion, I'll say, yes it is.

Well, I am strongly fluent in SEE (Signed Exact English) which is based on English language.

I am a bit fluent in ASL since I have been paying attention to ASL signing for 4 years. From my experience with ASL, there are significant distinctions that ASL has.

-ASL does not use definite articles such as "the" nor indefinite articles such as "a".
-ASL doesn't use gender-coded pronouns such as "he" and "she"
- ASL has its own phonemes and morphemes. For instance, ASL has only one sign for "to need", "to have to", "must", and only one sign that means both "say" and "tell".


American Sign Language (ASL) is a complex visual-spatial language that is used by the Deaf community in the United States and English-speaking parts of Canada. It is a linguistically complete, natural language. It is the native language of many Deaf men and women, as well as some hearing children born into Deaf families.

ASL shares no grammatical similarities to English and should not be considered in any way to be a broken, mimed, or gestural form of English. In terms of syntax, for example, ASL has a topic-comment syntax, while english uses Subject-Object-Verb. In fact, in terms of syntax, ASL shares more with spoken Japanese than it does with English. I have some information on Japanese Sign Language as well.

Some people have described ASL and other sign languages as "gestural" languages. This is not absolutely correct because hand gestures are only one component of ASL. Facial features such as eyebrow motion and lip-mouth movements are also significant in ASL as they form a crucial part of the grammatical system. In addition, ASL makes use of the space surrounding the signer to describe places and persons that are not present.

Sign languages develop specific to their communities and is not universal. For example, ASL is totally different from British Sign Language even though both countries speak English. Many people consider it a shame that there isn't a universal sign language (see below), however it's also a shame that there isn't a universal spoken language, right? I personally enjoy seeing the great variety and diversity of languages and the first topic of conversation when I meet a Deaf person from another country is an exchange of vocabulary: "How do you sign this? How do you sign that?"

Interesting, however, American Sign Language shares many vocabulary terms with Old French Sign Language (LSF) because a French Deaf man, Laurent Clerc, was one of the first teachers of the Deaf in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. So if you know ASL, you're better off taking a vacation in France than in England! But the French connection to America is rare, most sign languages develop independently and each country (and in some cases, each city) has their own sign language.

"International" Sign Language?
There is no "universal sign language" or real "international sign language." There is a sign form called Gestuno that was developed by a committee of the World Federation of the Deaf. It's not really a language, more a vocabulary of signs that they all agree to use at international meetings. But no one really signs Gestuno as a native language, just as no one really uses Esperanto as their native spoken language*. In Europe, because of the increasing trade and mobility, there is a lingua franca being developed, a creole sign language that some have taken to calling International Sign Language. But neither Gestuno or the new European creole are true natural languages from the linguistic perspective. Perhaps as a new generation of Deaf Euro-kids grows up, they will develop a new, natural Euro-sign language.

ASL Grammar and Linguistic Studies
As mentioned above, ASL has a very complex grammar. Unlike spoken languages where there is just one serial stream of phonemes, sign languages can have multiple things going on at the same time. This multiple segmentation makes it an exciting language for linguists to study and a frustrating language for Deaf-impaired (aka, hearing) people to learn. ASL has its own morphology (rules for the creation of words), phonetics (rules for handshapes), and grammar that are very unlike those found in spoken languages. ASL and other sign languages promise to be a rich source of analysis for future linguists to come.

If you're interested in sign language linguistics, one of the best journals to get started on is the journal Sign Language Studies, published by T.J. Publishers in Silverspring, MD. Many university libraries subscribe to it as well, if yours doesn't, give them a little prodding. There have been few textbooks describing ASL grammar (because it's so complex and hearing people still know so little of it), but the Gallaudet Green Book series (especially the teacher's edition) is quite useful. You can get it from Harris Communications or other deaf bookstores.

ASL in Japan
If you're interested in learning ASL and are in Japan, I highly recommend the Japan ASL Signer's Society (JASS). They're located in Iidabashi, Tokyo and teach ASL commercially. All of the teachers are quite good. I think at least 40% of the students are deaf themselves, so come to the classes with some understanding of JSL before trying to learn ASL:

Ponpian heights #702
4-4-5 lidabashi, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo, 102-0072 Japan
Tel Fax 03-3264-8977

http://www.angelfire.com/ut/stelok/ -this site is made by me.

Father of ASL

Stokoe's research on ASL linguistics, personal advocacy and published works resulted into the recognition that the American Sign Language is a true, fully formed, human language with its own syntax, semantics and grammatical structures, thus overcoming the contentions of linguists that it was little more than a rudimentary imitation of the spoken word.
Dr. William C. Stokoe (pronounced STOH-key) Jr., a renowned linguistics pioneer, a Gallaudet University professor emeritus of linguistics and one of the most influential hearing individuals in the Deaf community who was known throughout the Deaf community as the Father of ASL for his significant contributions to ASL (American Sign Language). William C. Stokoe was born in July 1919 in New Hampshire. He attended Wells College in 1937 with his intention to study physical chemistry but it consumed time and money. So, he turned his interest to English courses. He later received his Ph.D. in English in 1946 and taught English at Wells College for seven years.

Prior to his service in Gallaudet, he had no knowledge of Sign language. In the 1950's, many people perceived American Sign Language as "broken English" and did not regard it as a true language. The use of ASL was prohibited from many educational institutions.

In the fall of 1955, Dean George Detmold whose friendship with Dr. Stokoe that led to his career in Gallaudet hired him as the chair of the Department of English because of his expertise in Old and Middle English although he reluctantly took his job in teaching since he did not know how to sign. In the following year, William Stokoe arrived at Gallaudet College to teach English where he was first exposed to deaf people signing. While he taught students and learned signs, he realized that his signs were not like the deaf faculty members and deaf students used. He recognized that they communicated with each other smoothly.

While most of his colleagues and a vast majority of linguists dismissed signing as mere mimicry of speech, Stokoe saw in it elements of a distinctive language all its own. Then he pursued researching on language itself. However he received harsh criticism and skepticism from his colleagues. Other faculty members ridiculed or reviled him, and many deaf members of the Gallaudet community laughed at his efforts. Still he maintained his belief that there is more to the sign language than meets the eye.

Dr. Stokoe's breakthrough came in 1960, five years after his arrival in Gallaudet when his book Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf. was published. At first, he did not receive much support but thereafter his continuing research on the linguistics of ASL silenced the critics. In 1965, Stokoe, along with Carl Croneberg and Dorothy Casterline, co-wrote A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. Those books proved that the sign language passed the definition of a language. Stokoe's beliefs gradually drew wide acceptance and persuaded schools for the deaf to re-evaluate their approaches.

Thanks to Dr. Stokoe's hard labors, American Sign Language scientifically and unequivocally met the full criteria of linguistics--phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and use of language--to be widely classified as a fully developed, natural, independent, mature and real language.

In 1971, William Stokoe gave up his post as English Department Chairman and devoted all of his time to linguistics. And the following year, he became the director of the Linguistics Research Laboratory which he established at Gallaudet until 1984. Later in 1972, he edited the journal Sign Language Studies to sustain an unpopular dialogue until it ended in 1996. Afterwards, he was awarded for his remarkable achievements in the field of ASL linguistics. In May 1988, he received an Honorary Degree for his advocacy of ASL linguistics from Gallaudet University.

Following Dr. Stokoe's retirement from Gallaudet in 1984, he was named Professor Emeritus and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University in 1988. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and Madonna University in Michigan. Dr. Stokoe was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Cosmos Club of Washington D.C. He was a past president of the St. Andrews Society of Washington and had served as pipe major of the Washington Scottish Pipe Band. His hobbies included playing the bagpipes.

In addition to his work on ASL, Dr. Stokoe was also one of a group of international scholars who led a revival of scientific interest in the origin and evolution of the human capacity for language Throughout his life, William Stokoe wrote, co-wrote and contributed many books relating to the Study of Sign Language. His also owned and operated his own publishing company, Linstok Press, with his wife, Ruth Stokoe until 1997. He traveled widely around the world, speaking and delivering papers on the subject of Sign Language.

William Stokoe died of Myeloma which was known as bone cancer on April 4, 2000 at his home in Chevy Chase, MD.

Definition of American Sign Language

It is a language because it has a grammar
with rules of word and sentence formation.

It is visual based (e.g. handshapes, movements
and palm orientation or location of a hand)

Does not rely on word order

It is a natural and real language.

It is the signed language of the Deaf World in the U.S.

It is visual-gestural and visual-manual.

It has it's own grammar and syntax.

It is not based on English but has a structure that more closely resembles French.


Individual Sign Formation

Just as spoken words are formed from "parts" (e.g. vowel sounds and consonant sounds) so are the signs in any sign language. But the "parts" of signs are not sounds. Rather the "parts" of a sign are specific handshapes, movements of the hand, and specific locations of the hand. For example, the Dictionary of American Sign Language (the first such dictionary based on linguistic principles) lists 18-19 handshapes, 24 movements, and 12 locations. You can find illustrations of each these handshapes, movements, and locations in the video and text resources listed below. But, you might wonder how is it that linguists were able to identify these specific handshapes, movements, and locations.

With spoken languages, you can identify meaningful sound units by finding minimal pairs. These are words that have different meanings and that differ in only one sound. Thus, that one sound must be meaningful and unique because if you change it, you produce a new word. For example, just by changing the first sound of the word hit you produce words such as bit, fit, kit, lit, mit, pit, quit, sit, wit, zit. The same procedure of contrastive analysis has been applied to American Sign Language to identify the meaningful handshapes, movements, and locations.

For example, look at the drawing (left) and notice that if you change the location of the sign (where in space or on the body the sign is made) that means "father", you produce a sign with a new meaning. The new meaning is "mother."

Likewise if you change the movement of the sign that means "father" from a slight tap to a double movement away from the head, you produce a sign with a new meaning, i.e. "grandfather:"

This has been a very simplified introduction to this topic. The essential point to remember is that each sign in a signed language is composed of a specific and unique combination of a handshape, a movement, and a location. Changing any one of these aspects of a sign changes the meaning of the sign. There are many fascinating aspects to this this topic. For example, researchers have been able to identify certain handshapes and locations that are used in other sign languages but that are not used in American Sign Languages (just as there are sounds used in other spoken languages that are not used in American English). Researchers have also studied the acquisition of handshapes by Deaf children and have identified acquisition stages from the use of more simple handshapes to more complex ones.

Variation There are several types of variation in all human languages. For example, in spoken American English words are pronounced differently by people from different parts of the country or by people with different backgrounds (e.g. car, cement, police). Also in spoken American English people may use different words to refer to the same reality (e.g. sub, hero, grinder, hoagie, Italian sandwich). These different types of variation that exist for spoken languages also exist for American Sign Language (and also for other signed languages).

Research has identified the following different types of variation in American Sign Language:

Regional Variation Different signs used in different parts of the country (e.g. different signs to express meanings such as "Halloween," "birthday," "Christmas," and "candy."

Racial/Ethnic Variation
Different signs used by members of different racial or ethnic groups (e.g. Black Southern signers sign differently than non-Black Southern signers).

Gender Variation Different signs and different forms of signs used by males and females.

Age Variation Different signs and different forms of signs used by older signers and by younger signers.

Thus, American Sign Language and other indigenous signed languages have the same type and range of variation that exists in spoken languages.

Basic Sentence Types In spoken American English, one way we know that someone has made a statement, asked a question, or given a command is by different intonations of the person's voice. That is, this important grammatical information is not always conveyed by the use of specific words. Likewise, in American Sign Language this type of grammatical information is not always conveyed by the use of specific signs. Rather there are certain non-manual behaviors that are used to indicate statements, questions, commands, and other types of sentences. The videotape and text resources offer material that provides a more detailed discussion of the non-manual grammatical signals. What follows is a brief overview of some of the important sentence types and the specific non-manual behaviors associated with each sentence type.

Declarative Sentences: This is perhaps the most basic sentence type in American Sign Language. There does not seem to be any specific non-manual behavior associated with this sentence type. Instead, the absence of any other specific grammatical signal serves to indicate a declarative sentence.

Questions: There are basically two types of questions - Yes/No questions and Wh-word questions. The non-manual signal used to indicate a Yes/No question consists of raised eye brows, slightly widened eyes, and, often, a forward tilt of the head and/or body. Sometimes the shoulders are also raised. This set of non-manual behaviors occurs during production of all of the signs that you want to be part of the question. For example, suppose your friend was talking about a particular movie and you wanted to ask whether your friend had seen the movie. You would use this set of non-manual behaviors while producing the manual signs meaning "FINISH," "SEE," "MOVIE," and "YOU." The meaning of the signed utterance would be the Yes/No question "Have you already seen the movie?"

If you want to ask a Wh-word question (i.e. who, what, where, when, why, how) you would use a different non-manual signal. The behaviors consist of a brow squint and, frequently, a tilting of the head. Sometimes the body shifts forward and the shoulders are raised. For example, suppose you wanted to ask someone how a mutual friend got to a party (since you know the friend lives rather far away and the friend's car is in the shop). You would use this set of Wh-word non-manual behaviors while producing the manual signs meaning "HOW," "COME-here," "HOW." The meaning of the signed utterance would be the Wh-word question "How did ____ get here".

Commands: This type of sentence requires stress or emphasis on the verb and requires the signer to look directly at the person who is being told to do something. There are two ways of showing stress - one is to produce a sign faster and sharper than normally; the other type of stress is very emphatic and involves making a sign much more slowly and deliberately than normal. For example suppose you wanted to tell someone to stop teasing the cat. You might look directly at the person while producing the manual signs "FINISH," "TEASE," "CAT," "FINISH." You would also stress the sign "FINISH." The meaning of the signed utterance would be the command "Stop teasing the cat! Stop it!"

Frank D. White
08-09-05, 00:59
The signed English they teach hearing people is nothing like ASL. After a year of night school "signed English", I could not begin to understand deaf people using ASL with each other. The most shocking thing to me was watching deaf people sign with a drink or sandwich in one hand using ASL with the other;signed English uses both hands for almost all the signs. I was also told the sign language in different countries in not exactly the same, but close?



08-09-05, 07:18
In Signed English, we use the sign "beautiful" with two hands but in ASL, we use the same sign "beautiful" with one hand.

08-09-05, 12:21
I knew that ASL and other sign languages are real languages from reading The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. He explains how languages evolve from simpler forms of communication, and how humans have an innate ability (actually more like a necessity) to use language. :cool:

15-09-09, 20:29
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23-02-10, 10:12
Yes American Sign Language (ASL) is the only true language for Deaf people in the United States. There are many forms of sign methods which are: SEE 1 (Seeing Essential English), SEE 2 (Singing Exact English), Signed English, Rochester Method, CASE (Conceptually Accurate Signed English). ASL has its own structure and changes over time, if a language does not change then it dies out. An example of a language that died out is Latin. Languages stole words from Latin, but in return, words were never added to the vocabulary of Latin.

I am majoring in ASL at my college and I am required to take an ASL Linguistics class. My professor has proved that ASL is a language and it is constantly changing. Therefore, it is a language.