Random Thoughts and Musings by moi

Musings by a feisty, opinionated Deaf gal who wants nothing but the best for her community and her people

dimanche 19 novembre 2006

So where is ASL from anyway?

Carl Schroeder posits the idea that we have no concrete evidence that ASL is descended from la langue des signes française (LSF), and cites one source that is rife with grammatical and spelling errors. It is an interesting supposition and one that may have some credence. I, however, beg to differ.

Schroeder is right in that we have no record of what ASL looked like in the early- to mid- 1800s, neither taped nor written, so it is difficult if not impossible to determine what it looked like. We have no way of knowing what the pidgin mix of LSF and Martha's Vineyard signs looked like.

However, I believe plenty of evidence, both linguistic and historical, exists that clearly demonstrates beyond a doubt that ASL and LSF are linguistic relatives.

Sign "with."

Really. Go ahead and sign "with."

Okay. Look at your hands. What handshape are you using to sign "with?"

That's right. A.

And the French word for "with" is...

And the LSF sign for "with" is a cognate of ours.

There are more examples. Sign "see" as in "I see something."

What handshape are you using? V. The French word for to see? voir

Want another? Sure... sign "search" or "look for." Handshape? C. French word? chercher

And all of these signs have LSF cognates (if I remember my LSF right... my LSF book isn't handy at the moment). There are many ASL-LSF cognates that do not have English-French cognates, such as the sign for "excuse me," which is a near-perfect cognate of the LSF sign that corresponds to "pardon."

Another factor pointing to the idea that LSF existed first and was one of the progenitors of ASL is that there was a deaf school in Paris for close to a century before there was a deaf community in America, not counting Martha's Vineyard. The Institut National des Jeunes Sourds is where Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc went to school and later taught. This is where Gallaudet was taken once he had decided to check out the French way of teaching deaf children. (aside here: if you ever get to visit the school, head to the right rear stairwell. There's this stone engraved passage talking about how Gallaudet came to the school and brought Clerc to America, and started a school for the deaf in America. In their definitive French deaf history book, Les Pouvoir des Signes, or The "Can" of Signs, they speak of Gallaudet and American deaf education in very reverent tones.) LSF was already in existence and in use when Gallaudet talked Clerc into leaving everything he'd ever known for the American wilderness. There was a book of LSF in existence as early as 1779, written by Pierre Desloges. (The site is in French, but the info is in the first paragraph.) In Nora Ellen Groce's book (by the by, Schroeder's source quotes from this book as well), it discusses the differences between ASL and Islander signs. One of the eldest islanders said in an interview that he could never understand young deaf sign language because the signs used on the island were so different. Ergo, Islander sign language is probably not the most significant source of ASL. We've established that LSF existed before ASL as much as possible and that it is substantially different from Martha's Vineyard signs without concrete evidence of what ASL looked like a century and a half ago.

Another clear indicator is the grammatical construction found in ASL and in spoken/written French. One oft-quoted example of ASL grammar is CAR RED, in which the adjectives occur after the noun, unlike English, where the adjectives precede the noun, as in red car. Care to hazard a guess which construction spoken/written French uses? Yup, you got it. Same as ASL - la voiture rouge. The linguistic similarities are much deeper than simple word order, however. There's an idiom in English which reads, "It's clear as mud." If this were to be translated into French, it would read "Il est clair comme boue." If we translate word-for-word back from French into English, it would be "It is clear how mud." Feel familiar? It should if you use ASL, because this is a construction that often comes up in ASL, but never ever in English. As a Francophone, I've found I have a much easier time translating between written French and ASL because their grammatical constructions are more similar than those of English and French. There are more examples, but you get the idea.

While this is probably not sufficient evidence to satisfy everyone out there, it is way more than enough to satisfy me that ASL is directly descended from LSF, with other influences thrown in and time and distance have helped to separate the two languges as well.


  • At 00:09, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    Thanks for discussing whether ASL is derived from LSF. Let's pick one French sign, AVEC. You indicated that it is initialized with the handshape A, correct. Is it like "signed French"? Is there any work citation for your discussion?

  • At 01:23, Blogger moi said…

    That's correct - it's signed the same way we sign the sign indicating "with." I'm not sure whether it's supposed to be "signed French," or not, but that is the LSF sign. I do have citations, but they're buried somewhere in one of the boxes in my garage. They're in my class notes or my textbooks. My LSF book is either misplaced or out on loan. So short answer - yes there are citations, but no, I can't produce them without hours of searching. If anyone out there has information to prove (or for that matter, disprove) any of this, please feel free to add it here.

  • At 01:39, Blogger moi said…

    As for citations, some citations are in the post itself and were discovered with just a few minutes of Googling the topic. The grammatical structure can be independently verified by people who use English, French, ASL, and minimal LSF. I wish I could've made the citations stronger, but there's *something* there.

  • At 09:48, Blogger Todd said…

    You mean to say that despite my tremendous mental effort in excising my intialized sign vocabulary from my signing, I am still using the French ones, too? Noooooooooo!!! :)

    Thanks for an indepth discussion, though. I always have suspected that there was a high number of cognates between ASL and LSF. It would be nice to visit that school once in my lifetime and pay homage to my language roots.

  • At 12:24, Blogger Carl Schroeder said…

    I agreed that it's very difficult to collect cited works that are highly academic and reliable. By the way, I've never thought about "signed French" but it makes me wonder why Sicard always had his star students on stage, one signed for another to write on the blackboard. Was it what The Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet got inspired to recruit Laurent Clerc to Hartford a year after he saw the exhibition in London? It's interesting, though!

  • At 15:19, Blogger moi said…

    *laugh* Yeah... 'fraid so. At least we can take comfort in knowing the initialized signs we use have a strong, rich, and long linguistic history spanning two continents behind'em. *grin*

    And I highly recommend visiting INJS. It is fascinating. In that same stairwell, there are marble steps, grooved with centuries of use. I swear I almost saw Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Laurent Clerc, Jean Massieu, Charles-Michel de l'Épée, and Roch-Ambroise Sicard walking up and down those same steps I was ascending. (Okay, blame my over-active imagination if you must, but it was so awe-inspiring!) Cautionary note - someone went to Paris last summer and apparently you can't just waltz on campus anymore. You have to make arrangements ahead of time. But do go.

    That's a very good question. I've always wanted to know more about the travelling exhibitions Sicard, Clerc, and Massieu did. Thanks for not being offended at my dissecting your premise, by the way. *smile*

  • At 08:50, Anonymous Candace McCullough said…

    Good discussion...one more example...jouer = to play.

  • At 06:26, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    Many years ago, I once observed a group of French deaf persons visiting Gallaudet College. They had three interpreters--one for French Sign Language into spoken French, one for spoken French into spoken English, and one for spoken English into ASL. It was fascinating to watch the chain of interpretation going in both directions. However, I quickly discovered that I could understand the French deaf persons just fine by ignoring all the interpreters and just watching the French signs. It turns out that ASL still has something like 60% or 70% commonality with French Sign Language. This is surely more proof that ASL is descended from LSF or, more accurately, that both ASL and modern LSF are both descended from Old French Sign Language (that is, from the LSF used in Clerc's and Massieu's time). Both languages have evolved in different directions during the past 190 years, but still retain a lot in common.

  • At 15:31, Anonymous Anonyme said…

    Another example of French to ASL is the sign for "never"... the ASL sign is a "J" in the air -- French word: Jamais...

    Sorry Carl, but your opinion about the derivation of ASL/LSF is way off base, although I do agree that LSF and ASL have grown in separate directions over many years of cultural usage (but then, so have English and French spoken languages!). If one wants to be totally academic about it, why not evaluate the growth of LSF/ASL from LATIN sign language?? HAHAHA



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