When Was Sign Language Invented?

It is very difficult to find out more about the origin and history of sign language due to the limited written documents that are available on the subject. Very little is known of the subject, which is why it can be hard to find out more about when sign language was created and who invented it.

There are a few documents from history that would suggest a rough time period in which sign language was invented, so there is some information to be explored. If you have been searching the internet to find out when sign language was invented, you might have noticed that there are varying answers to the questions.

The good news is that we have done all the research so you don’t have to, and we have compiled it all in one place to make it easier for you to find the answers to the questions that you have. Just keep reading to find out when sign language was first invented.

When Was Sign Language Invented?

Unfortunately, due to the fact that sign language is not a written language, its history is scarce as it is undocumented. There are very few written records that mention the use of sign language by the deaf communities, and even these records were almost exclusively created by hearing people. This makes them questionable when it comes to the language itself. 

However, there is solid evidence that would suggest that deaf people have been signing since as early as the 16th century. Although, many scholars believe that people were signing earlier than this. 

Many people believe that the first forms of modern sign language developed sometime in the 18th century, and that its development was related to the growth of cities. With a larger number of people being concentrated in smaller areas, deaf individuals came into contact with more deaf people.

Eventually, they formed communities that developed into a more standardized form of sign language. Although, the language itself only continued to develop and change, just like spoken languages did over time.

Who Invented Sign Language?

There are some scientists that credit mankind as the inventors of the first sign language, and this is likely to be true. Early man would have used gestures to communicate before spoken language, and they most likely pointed and created signs for things that they couldn’t talk about. Due to this, early man was likely the first inventor and user of the most basic form of sign language.

Some people also think that a man called Juan Pablo de Bonet invented sign language. In 1620, he wrote a book that contained the first known manual alphabet system, and the handshapes in this system represented different speech sounds. 

Others think that the deaf people that lived on Martha’s Vineyard were the first to invent sign language. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, or MVSL, is an early form of sign language that was used on the island of Martha’s Vineyard just off the coast of Massachusetts. On this island, hereditary deafness was very common in the 17th century, and while these people were not the first to use sign language, they did have an impact on the schools for the deaf that followed.

Lots of people think of Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee when they think about who invented sign language. While he did not invent the language, he did create the first free public school for the deaf in Paris in 1771.

This school was dedicated to educating the deaf using a standard sign language that L’Epee created himself. This was the first sign language that was widely used.

Something that wasn’t considered was the fact that children from all over the country came to this school, even some from Martha’s Vineyard. These are children that would have been signing at home, and they brought these signs to school with them.

L’Epee learned all of the signs that the children had been using and created his own standard sign language that was based off of them. Eventually, this was labelled as French Sign Language, which became widely used in Europe.

The first American school for the deaf was later established in 1817 by Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. These two people are often credited as the original inventors of the American Sign Language, but this is only partially true. Laurent Clerc was actually from Europe, which meant that he taught French Sign Language. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought Clerc back to America with him to start the first American school for the deaf.

Although, just like Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee’s school, children from all over the country traveled to this school to get an education. In turn, they each brought their home-signs with them. These signs were combined with French Sign Language to create the American sign language. 

From all of the schools for the deaf that were around, children that attended would have created a language in which they could communicate with each other. Due to the fact that children from different locations would bring their own forms of sign language to the schools, native sign language was created in different locations. This is why sign language can vary by location today.

Sign Language in the 20th Century

There has been major progress in the development of sign language as a language, but today, the majority of deaf individuals have learned the language unofficially, rather than in schools. As well as this, the early 20th century saw the ride of opposition to sign language that persisted until the 1970s. 

Deaf children were discouraged and even punished for using sign language, and they were instead forced to learn fingerspelling and lip reading. This negative attitude towards sign language only changed when it became clear that the new approach was not producing good results.

Today, people are much more aware of the fact that sign language is more than a collection of gestures. This is why sign language became recognized as an official language in the early 2000s.