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History of Sign Languages

Sign language has always been an aspect of human communication, predating the use of spoken language ([208]). Throughout history there is documentation of Deaf people meeting together and communicating through signs. As early as the first century St. Augustine (AD 354-430) made reference to the use of bodily communications and signs in Chapter 18 of De quantitiate animae liber unus (please see below for an excerpt, and for the full Latin version please visit this Augustinus Hipponensis website page).

However it was not until the work of Ponce de León in the 1500’s and Bonet in 1620 that the first attempts were made to document aspects of the language, and to use it in the education of deaf individuals. While these efforts were essentially limited to the use of the manual alphabet, and focussed on the teaching of speech, they represented the first recognition of sign language as a distinct language. Bonet developed a sign language dictionary that included the first sign language alphabet and a description of how to learn to sign.

Only in the latter part of the twentieth century was sign communication given the linguistic status of a language. This was an outcome of the work by Stokoe who coined the term American Sign Language (ASL) for signing used in the USA in 1960. Other countries followed in identifying their sign languages and the term British Sign Language (BSL) was first used in the UK by Brennan in 1975. BSL was formally recognised by the British Government in 2003.

The recognition of sign languages as full languages led in many countries to the systematic development and assessment of sign language. This recognition also opened up the possibility of sign language being a language for education rather than ‘a primitive form of language’ ([213]) or simply “gesture or pantomime” ([214]). As a consequence, beginning in the 1980s, some schools and services adopted a sign bilingual approach to educating deaf children in which sign language as a language in its own right, with its own grammar was used alongside the spoken language of the country.  
 
Have you not then seen at Milan a youth most fair in form and most courteous in demeanour, who yet was as deaf and dumb to such a degree that he could neither understand others, nor communicate what he himself desired except by means of bodily movements? For this man is very well known. And I myself know a certain peasant, a speaking man, who by a speaking wife had four or more sons and daughters who were deaf mutes. They were perceived to be mutes because they could not speak; and to be deaf also, because they understood only signs that could be perceived by eye.