A Historical and Etymological Dictionary of American Sign Language

The Origin and Evolution of More Than 500 Signs

By Emily Shaw & Yves Delaporte
Illustrated by Carole Marion

Categories: Linguistics
Imprint: Gallaudet University Press
Hardcover : 9781563686214, 344 pages, June 2015
Ebook : 9781563686221, 344 pages, June 2015
Request a Desk or Exam Copy Request a Media Review Copy

Utilizing 1,150 sign illustrations and historical texts, this reference presents the detailed account of the origins of more than 500 ASL signs, including regional variations.



The story of how American Sign Language (ASL) came to be is almost mythic. In the early 19th century, a hearing American reverend, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, met a Deaf French educator, Laurent Clerc, who agreed to come to the United States and help establish the first school in America to use sign language to teach deaf children. The trail of ASL’s development meanders at this point. No documentation of early ASL was published until the late 19th century, almost seven decades after the school’s founding. While there are many missing pieces in the history of America’s sign language, plenty of data exist regarding ASL etymology. This book is the first to collect all known texts featuring illustrations of early ASL and historical images of French Sign Language—langue des signes française (LSF)—and link them with contemporary signs.

     Through rigorous study of historical texts, field research in communities throughout France and the U.S., and an in-depth analysis of the cultural groups responsible for the lexicon, authors Emily Shaw and Yves Delaporte present a compelling and detailed account of the origins of over 500 ASL signs, including regional variations. Organized alphabetically by equivalent English glosses, each sign is accompanied by a succinct description of its origin and an LSF sign where appropriate. Featuring an introductory chapter on the history of the development of ASL and the etymological methodology used by the authors, this reference resource breaks new ground in the study of America’s sign language.


Emily Shaw is a nationally certified ASL-English interpreter and linguist in Silver Spring, MD.

Yves Delaporte is former director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, France.



"ASL—a defining feature of the American Deaf community—had its roots in LSF, and this book tells, from a historical and linguistic perspective, how it all happened. In comfortable prose for both new and sophisticated readers of linguistic science, the authors write about the etymology of ASL, unlocking (in the authors' words) a 'trove of historical relics from America's past that are stored within the forms and meanings of its signs.' The work presents hundreds of ASL signs in alphabetical order, with each sign depicted in one or two graphics and a short paragraph describing its historical and linguistic roots. Highly recommended. All readers."

— J. F. Andrews, Lamar University, CHOICE