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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Identity and Social Images in Nineteenth-Century France

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Pierre Desloges and the Early Deaf Community

Some of the earliest comments about a deaf community in France come from Pierre Desloges (1742–?), who in 1779 became the first deaf man to publish a defense of sign language.6 Desloges was from the central part of France known as Touraine.7 He was raised in the village of Grand-Pressigny in the shadow of the castles of the Loire river valley. The local lord had appointed Desloges’ father to the post of tax collector, a dubious assignment from the viewpoint of the local peasants, but one that suggests that the Desloges family was not destitute. Pierre Desloges had one younger sister, Marie-Anne, born in 1746. Like many other children of the late eighteenth century, Pierre Desloges’ young life was dramatically changed by an outbreak of smallpox. He contracted the disease at the age of seven, and the resulting fever caused his deafness. The affects of the disease lingered for several years, and as a result, the young Desloges lost almost all of his teeth and his ability to speak French.8 He relied on writing and poor pronunciation as the basis of his communication skills, an indication that he had received at least a little primary schooling or some individual tutoring as a child. However, he did not learn sign language, except for some disconnected home signs, until about twenty years later.9

Based on Desloges’ own reflections, cruelty and discrimination routinely marked his young life. Even his parents did not believe that he was capable of learning a trade, which would have given him some economic stability and a measure of self-worth. He remembered that “relatives, friends [sic], and neighbors” treated him as though he was “beastly, imbecilic, [and] insane.”10 The young man could scarcely communicate with those around him, but their derision cut deeply. It is no wonder that Desloges left his native Touraine.

Desloges arrived in Paris in 1761, nineteen years old and ready to make a new life for himself. Paris, at that time, had a population of more than half a million people, and a sizable number—one estimate is about two-thirds—had migrated to the city in the latter half of the eighteenth century.11 Many of these people were impoverished and lived on the streets. Desloges was excited about living in a large city like Paris, which he called a kind of “marvel of the universe.” He relished the chance to see new and interesting things that he thought expanded the minds of deaf people. Desloges was the kind of person who drew energy from all the hustle and bustle of the city around him. As he searched daily for work, Desloges probably encountered other deaf people in Paris, a welcome change compared to his isolation in the countryside.12 When he was twenty-seven years old (in 1769), Desloges learned sign language for the first time from a deaf Italian man who could neither read nor write.13 The man, who worked as a servant in some wealthy homes, was deaf from birth. Desloges noticed that despite this Italian’s apparent illiterate condition, he could function well in sign language. Though we do not know how long it took Desloges to learn the basics of natural sign language from his Italian friend, it could not have been very long.14 Desloges, who had always relied on written language for communication, now had another outlet. This was certainly a turning point in his life, for Desloges now had a practical language—he called sign language “this useful art”—that would allow him to converse with other deaf people in Paris.15

Desloges was not afraid to engage directly in the debate over language that so absorbed the elites of the Parisian salons during the 1770s.16 However, unlike the intellectuals of the day, Desloges was interested in more practical matters. His comments about deaf people in Observations d’un sourd et muet reveal his frustration with how hearing people regarded the deaf minority, and he dearly wanted to set the record straight.17 Abbé Deschamps, a teacher of deaf children from the town of Orléans, had written a book in defense of spoken language for deaf people.18 This book motivated Desloges to produce his own tract that would rebut the key parts of Deschamps’ pedagogy. Desloges clearly felt that he was ideally suited to analyze Deschamps’ oral pedagogy, because, as a deaf man, he was able to comment on which instructional methods best helped deaf people learn in school. Desloges was very confrontational in Observations d’un sourd et muet, but also very precise.19 Because he repeatedly cited pages in Deschamps’ work, we know that Desloges was a careful and accurate reader who combed the pages of Deschamps’ book like a detective to unearth every falsehood behind Deschamps’ claims. Readers who enjoyed a sharp debate surely were not disappointed. In short order, Desloges challenged Deschamps to think about how he would learn English as a foreign language. Of course, Desloges’ main point was that we always use our first language as a point of reference to learn a foreign language. It was normal, then, for deaf children first to rely on sign language before they were introduced to written or spoken French. For Desloges, this oral method was simply an inefficient way to educate deaf children. Because Deschamps had also argued that sign language was too difficult to learn, Desloges replied that it would only take six weeks to gain a sufficient mastery of sign language. He even recommended that Deschamps come to Paris to learn some signs from Abbé de l’Epée!20

According to Desloges, Paris in the 1760s already had a nascent deaf community. Deaf people regularly associated among themselves, and a deaf person routinely had the opportunity to develop his signing ability with other deaf people. Those who knew a smaller number of signs gained more fluency from the constant interaction inside this deaf society. In this way, the entire community continued to evolve linguistically as the natural language of signs grew more elaborate. Desloges’ social circle was the laboring class of deaf people, among whom he counted himself (he had found work as a bookbinder and upholsterer in 1776). Many of his friends had been born deaf and did not know how to read or write French. Nor had they had any contact with Abbé de l’Epée at his residence on the rue des Moulins. They formed a different society of deaf people who were improving their lives in small steps. Through natural sign language, these deaf men were able to learn enough about the tenets of the Catholic faith to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and to marry in the Church. These deaf tradespeople took an avid interest in the world around them and, as Desloges noted, “we express ourselves on all subjects with as much order, precision and clarity as if we were able to speak and hear.”21

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