Uncovering the roots of sign language, and what the future holds
For many of us mere mortals, sign language is deemed a means of communication attributed exclusively to members of the Deaf community. And yes, this assumption certainly rings true when we consider one of the earliest records of a sign language in the fifth century BC, noted in Plato’s Cratylus, where Socrates says: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?”. However, before the formalising of American Sign Language in the 18th century thanks to the help of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, sign language has been intrinsic in the evolution of human communication.
Early in human history, even when vocal communication was the mainstream form of interaction, people would use visual gestures to express basic ideas. But this could merely have been an adaptation of body language – a subconscious assumption of body movement, which often conveys meaning and emotion – especially given the persecution and maltreatment of deaf people in this era. It wasn’t until the 16th century onwards where there began a development in the alternative communication: the 16th century saw deaf children being taught by the Benedictine monk Pedro Ponce de Leon’s form of sign language, which was allegedly manifested in order to bypass his ‘vow of silence’; 1620 saw the first sign language dictionary – constituting an outline of how to use sign language and its first ever alphabet; and when around 200 immigrants, who carried dominant and recessive genes for deafness, settled in Martha’s Vineyard, they were left to develop their own version of sign language and thereafter teach their descendants how to use it.
Interestingly, there exists a wide variety of sign languages around the world. French Sign Language was the first form to gain momentum, but this was later modified into what we now know as American Sign Language. The latter is also at odds with British Sign Language; not so much in terms of gestures, but more so in its grammar and structure of the language. If a deaf person is to visit a country where their mode of sign language does not reign there, they must avoid arbitrarily miscommunicating, for certain gestures can be interpreted as explicit and offensive when translated into a different language. There are also other, rarer sign languages like Japanese Sign Language, which incorporates a lot more mouthing of words than, say, American Sign Language.
As for the future of this interactive, versatile phenomenon, it is arguably our greatest phenomenon of today – technology – which could impact it. The invention of cochlear implants has given many deaf adults and children the chance to hear, but this has polarised the Deaf community. On the one hand, technological advances, like cochlear implants, have been celebrated for allowing the most common congenital sensory problem for American children to be combatted; that’s to say, many deaf children will now have the ability to hear and speak with spoken English and maximise their potential. On the other side of the coin, those who reject the cochlear implant seem to champion the idea that sign language forms part of their identity as a deaf person. Instead, they wish to use technology to enhance the tools and resources that can be put to use to teach and learn sign language. Either way, what is good to see is how technology can help the Deaf community; the beautiful sign language has been used to express and communicate since time immemorial, and it is still being adapted and more widely taught. But if a deaf person would prefer to use spoken English, then technology is there to help too, with its medical applications.