Tracy Staedter

Mar 26th 2021

How American Sign Language Got Its Start


The origin of American Sign Language starts with an encounter in 1814 between a young traveling minister, Thomas Gallaudet, and a nine-year-old deaf and mute girl, Alice Cogswell.

At a time when loss of hearing or speech was not well understood — and even considered by some as a mental disorder or punishment — Gallaudet broke through barriers to create a new language. He also established a school for the deaf in New England that still operates today. His work profoundly improved the lives of deaf people in America and laid the groundwork for assistive technology for the deaf that advances the communication and language abilities of people who cannot hear well or talk.

The Minister and the Misfit

Gallaudet hailed from Philadelphia and earned a master’s degree from Yale College, now the undergraduate college of Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer or a minister. But he’d been born with an underlying health condition that caused him to be short of breath and lag behind others. A couple of years after landing a job as a lawyer at a prominent firm, Gallaudet’s health problems forced him to resign. Undeterred, he went on to obtain a degree in divinity from Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, but again, his illness prevented him from accepting a permanent job as a pastor. Frustrated, but still filled with a sense of purpose, he began traveling throughout New England to provide basic education in religion and American history to children in small towns that did not have schoolteachers.

Around this time, he returned from his journeys to visit his parents in Hartford, Connecticut. In the book, “A World of Knowing A Story,” authors Andy Russell Bowen and Elaine Wadsworth write that, while sitting outside one day watching the neighborhood kids play, Gallaudet noticed a young girl playing by herself. He was told by the other children that the girl’s name was Alice and that she couldn’t hear or speak. Gallaudet could relate to the girl being alone, as he himself was sickly and a misfit among his friends as a child. He tried to communicate with Alice but was unsuccessful. Using a stick, he scratched H-A-T in the dirt and then pointed to his hat. She did not seem to understand, so he repeated it several times, tossing the hat to the ground. “He was thinking about giving up, when all of a sudden, Alice snatched the hat from the ground, plopped it back on her head, and waved her finger at the three letters,” Bowen and Wadsworth detail. Alice understood. From there, Gallaudet taught the young girl how to write her name. Excited and proud, Alice rushed to tell her father, Mason Cogswell, a physician, about her new skill.

Dr. Cogswell was impressed. He asked Gallaudet to continue teaching Alice how to communicate. Since no standard language existed in the United States, the minister and the young girl came up with hand signals to express meaning and words. On Cogswell’s invitation, Gallaudet spent hours in the doctor’s extensive library, researching deafness. At the same time, Cogswell, who had learned of the existence of schools for the deaf in England and France, began to form the idea of starting a similar school in the United States. The doctor raised funds and asked Gallaudet to travel to Europe to learn from experts there.

American Sign Language Comes of Age

Gallaudet traveled to the Braidwoods Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in England, according to Penn State University’s Libraries. (In those days, “dumb” referred to people who could not speak). Instructors there relied on a proprietary method of lip-reading and hand gestures and were reluctant to share their methods without restrictions. For instance, they expected Gallaudet to teach at their academy for three years and, upon returning to the States, keep what he learned as a secret. He declined the invitation.

But as with other obstacles Gallaudet had faced in his life, he would find a way around this one. It turned out that while Gallaudet was in England, two instructors from a deaf school in France were in London to share their knowledge. Gallaudet attended the demonstration and was amazed as the two men, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc, communicated exclusively in sign language. Afterward, Gallaudet spoke with them, and they invited him to their school in Paris. He stayed for two months, learning all he could. When it came time to leave, Gallaudet invited Clerc to return with him to Connecticut and help start Dr. Cogswell’s school for the deaf. Clerc agreed.

The American Asylum at Hartford for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb opened on April 15, 1817 — a date that is now marked every year as ASL Day. (The school changed its name in 1895 to The American School for the Deaf.) Gallaudet served as the principal of the school, as well as an instructor alongside Clerc. Six students, including Alice, made up the first class. As Bowen and Wadsworth explain, both Clerc and Gallaudet combined “the French method of signing with the new signs and facial expressions that [Gallaudet’s] students used. Together, teachers and pupils were creating an American sign language, one that fit their own special needs and reflected their own lives and thoughts.”

Gallaudet fulfilled his sense of purpose and lived a happy life. By the time he retired in 1830, deaf schools had popped up in New York, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Fifty years later in 1880, the National Association of the Deaf was established in the United States. Loss of hearing and speech were no longer considered a mental disorder nor a punishment.

Assistive Technology for the Deaf

Around the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution’s engine churned out inventive people from every corner of life. In 1892, American electrical engineer and inventor Miller Reese Hutchison patented the first electrical hearing aid to benefit a friend of his who could not hear, according to Alabama Pioneers. It would be the first of many assistive devices for the deaf to come to market as the country turned the corner into the 20th century.

In the 1960s, deaf scientist Robert Weitbrecht invented the teletypewriter (TTY), a technology that resembled today’s text messaging. However, back then, everyone had a landline, and it was impossible for deaf people to call their friends or families. But Weitbrecht’s device, which had a keyboard and a display, allowed a person to communicate over the phone line with another person that also had a TTY. The caller would place the telephone receiver on the device, dial the number and, after the person answered, type the reason for their call. Abbreviations such as “GA,” which meant “go ahead,” and “SK,” which meant “stop keying,” became a vital part of communications, according to the National Deaf Center, and could be considered the first chat slang to be used over a phone call — decades before LOL (laugh out loud) and JK (just kidding) became ubiquitous in instant messaging apps.

Today, digital hearing aids and cochlear implants (a surgically implanted neuroprosthetic device) can provide those with a loss of hearing profound improvements. Closed captioning, text messaging and streaming video help to bridge the gap between those who can hear and those who cannot. Surely, Thomas Gallaudet would be amazed to see the world through the door he opened.