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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Through Deaf Eyes: A Photographic History of an American Community

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AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE

Whenever significant numbers of deaf people have congregated in one place, as in large cities or in residential schools, Deaf communities that rely on naturally evolving sign languages have come into existence. The little-known history of the American Deaf community parallels the experiences and struggles of other minority groups. Deaf Americans have organized politically to protect and promote their interests; formed local, state, and national organizations; established newspapers and magazines; founded schools; and gathered in churches where American Sign Language was the language of song and sermon alike. The great majority have found not just their friends but their spouses within the Deaf community.

American Sign Language (ASL) is the visual/gestural language that is the primary means of communication within the Deaf community in America and parts of Canada. ASL signs, like spoken language words, represent concepts. Many of the signs correspond fairly directly with English words, but many do not. Interpreting from ASL into English and vice versa is a difficult and inexact task, just as interpreting between any two languages always is.

American Sign Language traces its roots not to Britain, as American English does, but to early nineteenth-century French Sign Language because the first deaf teacher in the United States came from France. While ASL and French Sign Language have diverged considerably over the years, they are still mutually intelligible to a limited extent—somewhat like modern Spanish and Italian. British Sign

 

Language and ASL are, for the most part, mutually unintelligible. Similarly, the vocabulary and grammar of ASL are distinct from English. ASL has its own syntax and is governed by a unique set of grammatical rules, just as Japanese Sign Language is distinct from spoken Japanese, and Swedish Sign Language is distinct from spoken Swedish.

In spite of the upsurge in ASL research in recent decades and the growing popularity of ASL courses in high schools and colleges, misconceptions about this language are still common. For example, many people assume that there is


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