The root of a sign language can be prehistorically traced back to the BC and up to the Renaissance period. A number of theories have tried to suggest the way a sign language originated by using scientific proofs supporting the views (Lucas, 2014). However, the precise origin of a sign language is not exactly known, although it is widely believed to be older than the humankind. Some scholars speculate that in human communication, gestures came first before man began using oral speech (Lucas, 2014). On the other hand, some believe that the use of language began directly from ancient times without undergoing organized development (Groce, 2009). The study of hominids bones by paleontologists scientifically proves that people developed oral language after gestures. This conclusion stems from the finding that the early human being’s voice was not connected with the current complex speech apparatus (Lucas, 2014). A hundred thousand years ago when the hominids became upright, they used their hands to communicate and use tools. According to the anthropologists, the start of a sign language possibly concurs with the rise of Homo erectus (Lucas, 2014). This paper will attempt to explore the origins of a sign language.
Ancient humans were surrounded by conditions that affected their choice of a language modality (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). However, the emergence of a sign language entailed speculations and disagreement, especially among those who believe in human evolution and those who do not. According to Lucas (2014), a sign language was used during hunting times on the open plains in order not to disturb animals; however, when hunting in high grass and woods, verbal signals were also used. In America, the Great Plains Indians developed a widespread system of signing. Different theories exist regarding how this language was used (Davis, 2010). For instance, it was almost impossible for the Indian people to communicate in other languages but their own; however, the development of a sign system increased the relative ease with which the natives could communicate with others (Lucas, 2014). It is assumed that when Columbus first explored America, he communicated with the Indians in a sign language (Davis, 2010). Other existing theories of gesticulation suggest that Native Indians were considered uncivilized because they used a sign language as the only understandable means of communication during a trade. Mostly, the Indians used a sign language for hunting purposes and intertribal communication rather than for the deaf (Davis, 2010). Questions regarding whether the sign language used by Indians or ancient humans attained the stage of being the proper language for abolishing the use of speech remain unanswered (Davis, 2010). In the past years, Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, declared that language and speech are the same things, and the people who could not speak were beyond teaching. For this reason, being deaf was considered a curse (Lucas, 2014). Normally, the deaf were deprived of religious rights and citizenship. In ancient Greece, they were left to fend for themselves or die, as the communication with signs was a disgrace (Lucas, 2014). In the 16th century, educationalists questioned the Aristotle proclamation. Girolamo Cardano, an Italian physician, claimed that deaf persons can speak by writing and hear by reading (Groce, 2009). Pedro de Ponce and Juan Pablo Bonnet are the two Spanish priests who put a sign language into practice (Lucas, 2014). For centuries, gesticulation was used by religious people in monasteries until it was declared a natural language (Groce, 2009). The first school for educating and instructing the deaf ever known in history was established by Pedro de Ponce of Monastery of San Salvador de Ona in 1545.
Despite the existence of signs for many years, various events eventually led to a sign attaining the state of an official language. Among such occurrences were the birth of a very influential deaf teacher, the fight between Manualists and Oralists, and the suppression of a sign and the deaf. The current official state of a sign received both positive and negative response but eventually, it endured (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). Before the 18th century, the governments did not categorize deaf people for social intervention but instead grouped into individuals with a medical condition. Currently, people with a hearing impairment are considered to be suffering from an illness known as deafness (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). Throughout the period of the French Revolution, the government accepted the inclusion of the deaf alongside other disabled citizens (Groce, 2009). Initially, this inclusion was believed to have emerged from the methodical sign language invented by a prominent deaf teacher Abbe Charles-Michael de l’Epee in the 1770s (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). Eventually, it became clear to the state that deafness was increasing and it was unreasonable to underestimate it. The state had no other choice but to engage in speech training and medicine (Groce, 2009). However, the ideas of treating deafness resulted in dissensions between Manualists. Abbe de l’Epee, one of the Manualists, argued that the natural language of the deaf was a sign language and, therefore, they should be taught in this language (Groce, 2009). On the other hand, others claimed that the mute must be able to speak in order to converse with the Oralists. Often Manualists educators were evangelical Protestants fascinated with a sign language. They believed that it was a gift from the Almighty to the mute persons (Davis, 2010). Therefore, they used signs as a way of drawing the souls that were cut off from the gospel nearer to God.
The deaf became a common feature in the Romantic era literature, art, and philosophy since the gesticulation was seen as the original humans’ language. On the other hand, Oralists, who initially argued that the deaf should learn to speak, were among those people worried about the growing diversity in terms of linguistics and culture, placing the deaf as inferior races. In most occasions, Oralists were ignorant of deafness (Davis, 2010). Consequently, they wished that people with speaking disabilities would lead a normal life without the need to use a sign language (Davis, 2010). Oralists tried hard to make mute people’s life ordinary by having them perform the same tasks as common persons. Generally, their ideas and methods were feared as such that could create diversity leading to suppression of minorities (Mallery, 2012). Manualists and Oralists both accused each other of errors but eventually, the Manualists won. The deaf developed their own means of communication which they could use among themselves and when communicating with other people (Mallery, 2012). Thereafter, the use of a sign was practiced by a number of people, and afterward, it spread to those who communicated orally initially. However, other individuals continued practicing a sign language as they used it. Nevertheless, years back before 1750, the prelingually deaf situation was awful (Mallery, 2012).
Individuals born with speaking difficulties could not acquire speech which made it hard to communicate with families and society (Davis, 2010). The deaf were confined in a few elementary gestures and signs different from their kind in the community. This was exceptional in the developed towns (Lucas, 2014). The deaf were deprived of the right to education and literacy, thus, had to work in low paying jobs. However, a deaf teacher and Abbe de l’Epee’s student, known as Abbe Sicard, raised concerns about the mute people who could not socialize with others and were isolated from the society (Mallery, 2012). Abbe Sicard argued that the mute also has everything they needed to acquire ideas, have sensations, and perform normally like other people. An answer to his question was that deaf persons had no capability of combining and fixing ideas, taking into consideration the communication gap between them and the rest of society (Lucas, 2014). The Gospel of John 1:1 one says, “In the beginning, there was the word”; therefore, oral speaking was considered as a form of communication between God and man. For this reason, the absence of hearing or speech entailed hostility towards the deaf (Lucas, 2014). However, Socrates, a Greek philosopher, challenged this view by saying that if people lack the voice and still willing to communicate, they can use other body parts, such as the head and hands to pass across their thoughts and desires (Davis, 2010).
Eventually, ordinary individuals and philosophers changed the deaf history, and De l’Epee started a school for the deaf, inspired by his line of work as a priest. The thought of the deaf living the whole life and then dying without knowing the scripture and the Word of God were unbearable for De l’Epee (Lucas, 2014). Therefore, he understood the mute and approached a sign language with admiration. The priest used methodical signs together with a sign language that eventually helped the deaf to write through a signing interpreter when communicated to them (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). The combination of signed French grammar and deaf sign language method became the first official sign language that allowed the impaired people to write and read. In 1789, De l’Epee passed away. By that the time, he had trained a number of deaf teachers and had founded up to 21 schools in Europe and France (Mallery, 2012). In due course, the deaf were capable of expressing themselves and their thoughts about others. Therefore, for the first time opportunities to intelligence were opened.
Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, the two French teachers, applied for their works regarding a sign language in other European countries and in the US. Later it grew into a modified form of French Sign also known as American Sign Language. Initially, various developed sign languages existed among the populations of mute people in the US. The place with the most significant percentage of deaf individuals was found in Martha’s Vineyard, an Island in Massachusetts coast (Lucas, 2014). For many years, there existed a form of genetic deafness, because of the first mute settlers in the 20th century. The rising deafness enabled the entire community on the island to learn a sign language that eventually resulted in intermarriages among the deaf and the hearing (Groce, 2009). With time, the deaf were considered not as handicapped but as ordinary human beings. The success of the school for the deaf built by De l’Epee inspired the emergence of other schools and training establishments for new teachers. In 1816, a sign language started changing and migrating (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). In 1817, Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc set up the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). The 1950s were characterized by an increasing need for higher education even among the deaf people. The son of Thomas Gallaudet, Edward Gallaudet, became the principal of the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. In the year 1964, the school became the world’s first college for the deaf after achieving federal support; hence, it changed the name to Gallaudet University. This event accounted for the migration of a French sign language to the US (Gardner & Gardner, 2013).
The next stage in the history of a sign language was characterized by its cultural acceptance (Mallery, 2012). H. Feldman together with Golden-Meadow started to deal with the deaf kindergarten children isolated from other signers since their parents preferred them learning lip reading and speech (Lucas, 2014). The children developed gestures despite the isolation from other signers. Initially, they were uncomplicated as they represented actions, objects, and people. Although later, they evolve a unique type of sign (Davis, 2010). For instance, there has been an effort to develop a language, which required a series of generation in order to be successful. A sign language and speech could be acquired as a natural language by the second generation (Lucas, 2014). Grammar-less pidgin occurs when two or more people meet. For instance, mute parents would lack language but manage to use signs. However, their children can evolve a true grammatical sign language (Groce, 2009). Grammatical forms of sign languages raise important topics for the researchers to investigate. For instance, they conducted a study about the process that occurs in the muscles which while a person learns a sign language. Studies have proven that an action of a particular muscle is obtained during the American Sign Language production (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). The scholars found out the interconnection between gestures and speech when inserting 002-inches electrodes into the arm and the tongue of an examined person (Gardner & Gardner, 2013). Therefore, these kinds of findings are big achievements in proving that a sign is real in every sense, which, in turn, assisted in realizing the ease in different discoveries concerning the brain and its functions.
Nowadays, there is a number of sign languages (Groce, 2009). Notable examples include the French, Danish, Britain, and American among others. Before the studies of a sign that interconnects with language and grammar which were developed in the 1800s, a sign language was the basic means of communication for the deaf. Researchers discovered that a sign language had its own syntax and grammar that are different from the usual spoken language (Groce, 2009). In fact, any sign language should be considered primitive since it expresses emotions and feelings in the same way that oral speech does (Lucas, 2014). Since the ancient period, signing has progressed; various studies have generally boosted the publicity to accept and respect sign languages.
In conclusion, a sign language has currently gained a significant momentum compared to ancient times. A sign language appeared before speaking. The emergence of a sign language is believed to start with the evolution of Homo erectus. During ancient times, a sign language was used in open plain while hunting to avoid disrupting wild animals. On the other hand, the verbal language was used while hunting in high grass and woods. To some extent, the Indian people were incapable of communicating in other languages but theirs. The existence of a sign language made communication easier among the natives. For years, the deaf were deprived of their rights to education, citizenship, and religion; most of the time they were ignored and left alone. Nevertheless, in the year 1545, the first school for the deaf was established. It became clear to the government that the number of deaf people was rising, and it could not be ignored. Eventually, the state began training teachers and medical personnel. Recognition of a sign language led to the emergence of American, British, French, and Danish Sign Languages. After becoming official, a sign language has gained popularity worldwide, and it is respected the same way as the oral language is recognized.