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Experience: Classics in Language and Education|
Harlan Lane, Editor
THE FIRST PERSON to publish a defense of the sign language of the deaf, championing it as the proper vehicle for their instruction, was a deaf man, Pierre Desloges, who in 1779 wrote the short book translated in this volume: Observations d’un sourd et muet sur ‘Un Cours élémentaire d’éducation des sourds et muets,’ publié en 1779 par M. l’abbé Deschamps (Amsterdam and Paris: Morin, 1779). The editor (the abbé Copineau, canon of the Church of Saint-Louis-du Louvre) claims in a preface that this is the first book ever published by a deaf man.
Born thirty-two years earlier in the town of Le Grand-Pressigny in the Loire Valley, Desloges had an attack of childhood smallpox and attributed to it both his deafness and his mutism. Before the illness, when he was seven, he had some knowledge of reading and writing; afterward he received no further formal education, although he continued to study written French on his own. He came to Paris when he was twenty-one, and living in considerable adversity he took up the trade of bookbinding and paperhanging. It was not until he was twenty-seven that he learned the sign language used in the Paris deaf community.
Desloges “took up his pen,” he tells us, to defend deaf people’s sign language against the scathing attack just published by the abbé Deschamps, canon of the cathedral at Orléans and something of a disciple of the great speech teacher of the deaf, Jacob Pereire. Pereire’s most famous pupil, Saboureux de Fontenay, in turn criticized Desloges’s book and thus the manualist-oralist battle was joined. Desloges’s book is important to students of deaf history not only for its closely reasoned arguments on behalf of sign language by one of its users and for its early but fragmentary description of that language, but also for the evidence it provides that a sign language of wider communication was in use by the Paris deaf before the abbé de l’Epée adapted it when he inaugurated a formal course for the instruction of the deaf.
A DEAF PERSON’S OBSERVATIONS ABOUT
Authors often give their books titles appropriate to fiction, either in order to mislead their readers, or to publicize their work more strikingly, or for other reasons. This essay is not of that kind; it was actually written by a young deaf man with whom I became acquainted through my dear friend the abbé de l’Epée.
This young man has never been a student of Epée’s, but as he has written his essay in defense of Epée’s method, he thought it fitting to honor him. He even wanted Epée to read the essay, checking it for publication. The virtuous ecclesiastic’s obligations—perhaps his great modesty—prevented him from doing so. So M. Desloges came to me for this service and I performed it with great pleasure.