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Where did sign languages come from?

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Many people in the deaf community often ask “where did sign language come from?” Auslan teachers often get asked this question by their hearing students. Many deaf and hearing people think that hearing people invented sign languages. They think that these hearing people then taught sign language to deaf people in schools for deaf children. But this is not true. Sign languages used in deaf communities were created by deaf people.

How did this happen? Deaf people have probably always created “home sign systems” to communicate with their hearing family. Home sign systems are simple sign languages with a small vocabulary and not much grammar. When deaf people begin to meet each other and form a community, at first they use their home signs with each other. Slowly, a sign language starts to develop, as the community use the same signs for the same meanings. They begin to combine the signs to make sentences in the same way. The number of signs grows as they use the new language to talk about many new things, and rules of grammar begin to develop. This is when home sign systems become real sign languages.

Auslan is the language of the Australian deaf community. Although the signs used in different parts of the country are a little different, and the way older and younger deaf people sign is different, all of these sign language varieties are known as Auslan.

Auslan was not created by any single hearing or deaf person, but has grown along with the deaf community. It is a new name (created by Trevor Johnston in the early 1980s) for a language that has been used by deaf people for almost two hundred years. Auslan is related to British Sign Language (BSL). We know that British deaf people started to come to Australia in the 1790s. The first known British signing deaf person to live here was John Carmichael 1. He arrived in Sydney in 1825 from Scotland. He went to a deaf school in Edinburgh, and was known as a good storyteller in sign language. This means deaf people were using sign language in Australia at least 35 years before the first schools were established in Australia (Thomas Pattison began the first school for deaf children in Australia in Sydney in 1860).

Deaf people have used sign language in Britain for many centuries. One of the earliest books on deaf people’s sign language in Britain was written in1648 (more than 350 years ago) by a hearing man named John Bulwer. In this book, he talks about two deaf brothers who used sign language. We do not know if this sign language was the same as modern BSL, but some signs may have been similar. Another book by the hearing English writer Daniel Defoe was written in 1720. In this book, he talks about deaf people using sign language and fingerspelling. So in the 1600s and 1700s, deaf people were forming deaf communities in the large cities and towns in Britain, and BSL was emerging.

The first school for deaf children in the United Kingdom was opened in Scotland in 1760 by Thomas Braidwood 2. We know that this school used sign language and fingerspelling. Where did the hearing teachers learn sign language? Although the teachers may have made up some signs, it is likely that hearing teachers learned most of their sign language from deaf people. We know that the famous Abbe de l’Epee (a French monk) who opened the first school for deaf children in Paris learned sign language from two deaf sisters 3. Later some signs from this French Sign Language were taken to the United States of America by Laurent Clerc. These French signs probably mixed with local American signs used by the deaf community from Martha’s Vineyard to create American Sign Language (ASL).

So Auslan, BSL, French Sign Language and ASL were not created by these teachers. All of these sign languages began in deaf communities.

Notes and further reading

  1. Carty, B. (2000). John Carmichael: Australian Deaf pioneer. In A. Schembri, J. Napier, R. Beattie & G. R. Leigh (Eds.), Proceedings of the Australasian Deaf Studies Research Symposium, Renwick College, Sydney, August 22-23, 1998. (pp. 9-20). Sydney: North Rocks Press.
  2. Kyle, J., Woll, B., Pullen, G., & Maddix, F. (1985). Sign language: the study of deaf people and their language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Lane, H. (1984). When the mind hears: A history of the deaf. New York: Random House.


Article written by Dr Adam Schembri
Dr Schembri is one of Australia’s best known sign language linguists. This article was written for Deaf Australia (formerly AAD) and first published in AAD Outlook, Vol. 14, Issue 1, February 2005.

Information provided by Deaf Australia Inc. Reproduced with permission.
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