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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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one universal sign language. This assumption often coexists with the entirely incompatible and equally erroneous notion that ASL was invented by educators as a visual representation of English. The usual conflation of “language” with “spoken language” is behind such beliefs, and this makes it difficult to convince people that ASL is a natural language, like any other (whether spoken or signed) that has evolved within a linguistic community.

ASL is often confused with the manual communication systems invented in the 1970s for the purpose of teaching written English to deaf children. These systems attempt to represent English on the hands by adding prefixes, suffixes, and verb-tense endings to ASL signs and by arranging the signs in English word order. “Manually Coded English” systems have their roots in the early nineteenth-century system called “methodical sign language,” which was used in the schools in France and the United States. These systems are codes, not true languages.

Because deaf people live among hearing people, they typically are bilingual. Much as Spanish speakers living in the United States sprinkle their conversations with English words and expressions, deaf people introduce elements of English into ASL. They fingerspell (use particular handshapes to represent the letters of the English alphabet) many proper nouns, such as personal names, place names, brand names, and titles of books, plays, and movies. They also fingerspell to communicate exact English words. Fingerspelling lies along the boundary of the hearing and Deaf worlds and mediates between English and ASL.

Like spoken languages, ASL is handed down from generation to generation, but this transference occurs most often within the Deaf community rather than in hearing families, in which, typically, there is only one deaf member. Descriptions of signs from the nineteenth century indicate that the language of the Deaf community, which was called “the natural language of signs,” has not changed essentially since that time. Films made by the National Association of the Deaf between 1910 and 1921 show deaf people using a sign language that, while different in some particulars, such as the production of certain signs and style of delivery, is understandable to ASL users today. How has that intergenerational transmission occurred? This brings us to the question of culture.


Deaf people have formed distinct cultures and signed languages all over the world for at least the last three hundred years. Indeed, wherever sufficient numbers of deaf people have been present, they have formed social groups in which a visually oriented language and culture flourish. These cultures do not include all who lack hearing but rather those deaf people who use sign language, share certain attitudes about themselves and their relation to the hearing world, and identify themselves as a part of a Deaf community. In American Sign Language, this is often referred to as the Deaf-World.

What makes Deaf people a cultural group instead of simply a loose organization of people with a similar sensory loss is the fact that their adaptation includes language. An environment created solely by a sensory deprivation does not make a culture. . . . What does form a culture for Deaf people is the fact that the adaptation to a visual world has by human necessity included a visual language. In the United States this is American Sign Language. . . .

This cultural identity is intrinsically bound to the language. When the Northern and Southern soldiers in a Deaf Civil War legend signed what could be glossed as DEAF-SAME, it was not an affirmation of a mutual lack of hearing, but rather one of mutual identity. In fact, in this legend, which continues to be told, it is an identity that transcended North and South allegiances. (Susan D. Rutherford, “The Culture of American Deaf People,” Sign Language Studies 51 [Summer 1988]: 725–26, 729)

The American Deaf community is characterized by a number of cultural attributes, among them the possession of a rich and diverse literature. Like many languages spoken all around the world today, ASL does not have a commonly used written form, but it does have a long-standing unwritten literature that includes various forms of oratory, folklore, and performance art. The rhetorical style of oratory is marked by the use of particular, sometimes archaic, signs, and is used for formal occasions. Folklore

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