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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education

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I cannot understand how a language like sign language—the richest in expressions, the most energetic, the most incalculably advantageous in its universal intelligibility—is still so neglected and that only the deaf speak it (as it were). This is, I confess, one of those irrationalities of the human mind that I cannot explain.

Several famous scholars have worn themselves out in the vain search for the elements of a universal language as a point of unification for all the people of the world. How did they fail to perceive that it had already been discovered, that it existed naturally as sign language, that all that had to be done was to improve the language and subject it to a methodical procedure, as the abbé de l’Epée has done so well?”10

Moreover, let not what I say here, in favor of a language made necessary for me by my infirmity and in favor of the abbé de l’Epée’s method based entirely on sign, be regarded as the effect more of enthusiasm than reflection. I am going to show that the most searching linguistic investigators have judged this language and this method as favorably as I have.

One such scholar is M. Court de Gébelin, author of a Universal Grammar (Ruault, 1774); the second is the author of Synthetic Essay on the Origin and Formation of Languages (Ruault, 1774); the third is the abbé de Condillac, author of A Course of Education for the Prince of Parma (Monory, 1776). The most fitting conclusion to this essay will thus consist of quotations from these three writers.

Court de Gébelin expresses himself as follows in Chapter 9, “On various ways of picturing ideas”:

“The deaf, who are currently taught with a splendid, simple method to understand and to write compositions in any language whatever, and whose exercises we cannot witness without emotion, had had no other instruction. Not only were they taught to express their ideas with gestures and in writing in various languages, but they were raised to an understanding of the principles that make up the universal grammar and that, taken from nature and the order of things, are invariable and determine all the forms in which ideas are depicted in all peoples and all methods” (p. 16).

In another passage from this book, he says: “With gesture we can form a language subject to the same principles, the same operations, and the same rules as spoken language, for gesture can depict the same objects, the same ideas, the same sentiments, and the same passions” (p. xxii).

In the Synthetic Essay the author proposes his answer to the important question of how men manage by themselves to create a language. He observes (p. 21) that one of the first languages would be that of signs, for sign language (which is largely independent of convention) represents or recalls the idea of things by signs that are not arbitrary, but natural.

The learned author says:

This language is a kind of painting that puts objects before our very eyes, so to speak, by means of gestures, attitudes, different postures, bodily movements, and actions. This language is so natural to mankind that despite the help we get from spoken languages to express our thoughts and all their nuances, we still make frequent use of it, especially when we are moved by some passion, and we leave off using the cold and measured tone prescribed by our institutional training, to bring us closer to the tone of nature.

This is also the common language of children. It is the only language that mutes can use among themselves, and it is an established fact that with it they can go far in the communication of their thoughts.

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