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American Sign Language (ASL)

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American Sign Language (ASL)

Sign Language Alphabet, used in fingerspelling 5
Sign Language Alphabet, used in fingerspelling 5

Sign language is a visual-gestural mode of communication used by the Deaf community, individuals who are hard of hearing, the deaf/blind, interpreters and other individuals who wish to communicate with the Deaf community. Rates of deafness in the U.S. were reported to be 1 in 6000 in the 19th century and sign language is the third most used language in the world. ASL includes signs made by the hands as well as fingerspelling, facial expressions, head movement and body language and was not recognized as an independent language until 1989 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are several types of sign language including American Sign Language (ASL), Signed Exact English (SEE), Pidgin Sign English/Contact Sign, Home Signs and Fingerspelling. This article will focus on ASL, which is the main native language of the American Deaf. ASL is often thought to be another form of English, however ASL has very different grammar and structure compared to English.


"Cat" Handshape: 'F' sign, Location: Dominant cheek, Movement: repetitive like cat whiskers, Palm: out, Nonmanual: None 4 6
"Cat" Handshape: 'F' sign, Location: Dominant cheek, Movement: repetitive like cat whiskers, Palm: out, Nonmanual: None 4 6

Signing is done using one or both hands and should be performed with clarity. Eye contact is very important while signing; breaking eye contact is considered to be rude. Signs should be performed in the signing area, which is located from the top of the signer’s head and ends at the waist. There are five important parts of a sign. The first is handshape, which refers to the shape the hand makes while making a sign. The second is location, which refers to where the sign is made. For example, a sign made at the top of the face can mean something different than one made at the bottom of the face. The third part of a sign is the movement; movement refers to the maneuvering of the hand while making the sign. The fourth part of a sign is the palm position, which refers to the direction of your palm while making the sign. For example, the palm could be facing away or towards yourself. The final part of the sign are the nonmanual markers. Nonmanual markers consist of body language and facial expressions that help to give the sign meaning.


Inverted V Classifier for "stand" 4
Inverted V Classifier for "stand" 4

Specific signs do not exist for every single word, so classifiers may be used instead. Classifiers are often used in sign language to help describe and demonstrate a group, shape, size or movement of objects. Classifiers can help with increasing the speed of a conversation since they can help represent to what the signer is referring. The following website gives excellent examples of the 1-5, A, B, C, F, G, ILY, L, O, S, U and V Classifiers: ASL Classifiers Some examples of classifiers are shown to the right and below.

Inverted V Classifier for "dance" 4
Inverted V Classifier for "dance" 4
3 Classifier for "car" 4
3 Classifier for "car" 4

Tone and Facial Expressions

"Happy" 4
"Happy" 4
"Sad" 4
"Sad" 4

Just as tone of voice and facial expressions are important in helping to understand spoken English, a person’s facial expressions are important in understanding sign language. Inflection and tone in sign language are related through force, speed, facial expressions and body language while signing. In the example on the left, happy and sad are contrasted to show the different facial expressions one would use when signing these words.

Grammatical Structure
Signs can vary in different regions. ASL leaves out articles such as an, are, the and of. The topic is usually signed first to signify what one is talking about unless a time sign such as yesterday or last night is being used, in which the time sign would be spoken first. Question words such as who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much are signed at the end of a sentence. When one is referring to another individual that is not present, one would indicate a space for that referent and point to that space, rather than signing the referent’s name repeatedly throughout the conversation. In general, ASL leaves out unnecessary words in favor of painting an overall picture of what one wants to say. For example, in spoken English, one might say, “My house is the red one” which would be signed in ASL as “My house red.”


In the 1700s, Abbe’ Charles Michel de l’Epee opened a free school in France for the Deaf. l’Epee learned the current language of the French Deaf called Old French Sign Language (OFSL) but modified the grammar of these signs resulting in a newer sign language called Old Sign French (OSF). l’Epee trained Abbe’ Sicard in this newer language, and Sicard later went on to write a dictionary of signs called Theory of Signs in 1782.

In 1816, education for the Deaf became a reality in the United States when an American named Thomas Gallaudet met a former student of Abbe’ Sicard, Laurent Clerc. On April 15, 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc opened the first school for the Deaf originally named “The Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons” which is now known as the “The American School for the Deaf”. In 1880, the Dark Age of Deaf history began when the oralist approach was introduced into the Deaf community. Oralism was a method of teaching that relied solely on lip reading, speech and auditory training. During this era, Deaf students and teachers were forbidden from signing and punished if caught. Despite this Dark Age of Deaf History, ASL survived and is now a blend of teachings from the American School for the Deaf, OSF and the home signs of students.

In the U.S., a sign language community was in existence from the late 1600s to the early 1900s on an island called Martha’s Vineyard which is just southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. There was an extraordinarily high rate of deafness of 1 in 155 on Martha’s Vineyard. Thus, the language of the people of Martha’s Vineyard was known as Vineyard Sign Language, and most people, including those who were hearing, spoke sign language.

Links to Online Dictionaries

ASL Browser
ASL University

Products for Deaf and Hard of Hearing:

Short descriptions of devices that are useful for the Deaf, including cochlear implants, closed captioning, TTY’s and others.
Contains products specifically for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing including alarm clocks, telephones, smoke detectors and others.
Also contains products targeted specifically for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Additional Information on Deaf Culture

Relates ideas about maintaining eye contact, touching another person, passing on the culture within a family and more.
Discusses the essentialness of ASL to the Deaf Culture.

Deaflympics or “The International Silent Games”

Longest running multi-sport event with the exception of the Olympics
17th Winter Deaflympics will be held in February, 2011 in High Tatras, Slovakia.


1. Duke, I. (2004). The Everything Sign Language Book American Sign Language Made Easy Avon, F+W Publications, Inc.

2. Miller, K. (2008). "American Sign Language: Acceptance at the University Level." Language Culture and Curriculum 21(3): 226-234.

3. Wilcox, S. and Wilcox, P. (1991). Learning to See American Sign Language as a Secondary Language. New Jersey, Prentice Hall Inc.

4. Vicars, W. (1997) ASL University ( Classifiers. Retrieved October 5, 2009, from ASL University Website:

5. Center for Disability Information & Referral (CeDIR), Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University, Bloomington (2008) Kid's Corner. Retrieved October 5, 2009, from CeDIR Website:

6. American Sign Language Lake Tahoe. Retrieved October 11, 2009, from ASLLT Website: