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A Short History of the Origin of Sign Language

Curious how sign language was created? Its origins date back to the 1700s.

Charles-Michel de l'Épée was a theology student with a checkered relationship with the Catholic church—although he desired to be a priest, he encountered some differences in belief that created friction in his career. But his life’s path would change completely when he discovered two Deaf sisters who changed his destiny.

One evening, de l'Épée stopped to rest at a home he spotted in the darkness. When he knocked, there was no reply—but since the door was open, he let himself in. Inside were two young women, apparently consumed with sewing. These girls didn’t answer de l'Épée’s questions or even appear to notice him.

When the girls’ mother appeared, she explained that her daughters were “deaf and dumb” (a now-outdated term but one that was used at that time to describe Deaf individuals).

The mother explained that the girls had had a local priest working with them on their education through pictures, but that priest had recently died. The girls had no one to instruct them in a way they could understand.

De l'Épée took it upon himself to work with these sisters. He believed that they needed to be taught about religion, and so he began his life’s work. Although it was countercultural at the time, de l'Épée believed that written or nonverbal language could be just as effective as spoken language. He began puzzling out how to teach these Deaf women through unspoken words.

As he observed the girls, de l'Épée realized they used their own versions of signs and hand gestures to communicate. He began to expand the system already in use—and sign language was born! De l'Épée would go on to standardize an alphabet of signs, which was later adapted into French Sign Language (FSL). FSL was the precursor to American Sign Language (ASL).

Word of de l'Épée’s work began to spread, and he began teaching a community of other local Deaf individuals. De l'Épée founded the first school for the Deaf in Paris in 1755. He opened the school using only his own money and was wary of taking any contributions from the wealthy; his goal was to help the poor.

After many years of service to the Deaf, de l'Épée died in 1789. He was one of the first public figures to treat members of the Deaf community as fully functioning human beings and members of society. His work remains a foundational part of Deaf history. De l'Épée is often referred to as “the Father of the Deaf.”

“Charles-Michel de l’Épée - Wikipedia.” May 16, 2023.

Marcath, Kathleen. 2023. “Respectful Terminology for the Deaf Community in 2023.” ASL Picture Books (blog). February 10, 2023.

Ray, Luzerne. 1848. “THE ABBE’ DE L’EPEE.” American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb 1 (2): 69–76.

“Sign Language | Definition, History, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. October 3, 2023.

“Special Education | Inclusion, IEPs & Learning Disabilities.” Encyclopedia Britannica. October 17, 2023.

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American Sign Language is a beautiful and powerful language, an untapped resource with limitless potential.

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