Corona del Mar High School

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The evolution of sign language


The human body is the greatest form of expression. From the clothes one wears to the things one says and does, expression is a form of self art. Sign language is a form of expression — one that bridges the gaps between languages and better assimilates deaf people into human culture. It allows for the opportunity and exploration of both hearing and deaf people to share, grow and learn from one another by using an alternative form of communication through signs.

Sign language was officially recognized as an independent language in the United States in 1960. However, the origins of sign language date back to early human history, when many humans began using simple hand motions to convey basic notions and ideas.

While many growing theories exist, evidence shows that the original foundation for the growing language started to evolve around the 17th century. Charles Michel de L’Epee, regarded as the “Father of Sign Language and Deaf Education,” established the first deaf public school in Paris, France.

Students were taught to communicate by sign language, increasing the commonality of the language throughout France. The language spread like wildfire throughout surrounding countries and eventually reaching the U.S. with the help of a French professor, Laurent Clerc.

Sign language has taken on many forms as it has extended its fingers around the world. For example, Britain has its own system, referred to as British Sign Language (BSL), whereas France uses French Sign Language (LSF). The list of all the different types of sign languages is lengthy, but the most common form of the language is American Sign Language (ASL). Used by the United States, Canada, Mexico, and parts of Central America, Asia, and Africa, ASL has the largest following out of all the different types, and is the fourth most common language spoken in the U.S., according to Gallaudet University.

Just as words evolve, so do the signs in sign language. Signs are shortened and simplified to allow for easier communication.

Tamara Owney, a sign language teacher at Corona del Mar high school, credits the source of these minor changes to the “elimination of body movement, which allows for faster communication and fluidity between signs.”

Not only has the language itself evolved, but deaf awareness and rights movements have grown substantially over the years. It was not until people started to view deafness as a common difference, rather than a barrier, that deaf people gained more acceptance in society.

Owney claims that up until the 1970s, parents of deaf children “did not want to communicate through sign language because it was regarded as different, or abnormal.” In today’s society, that is hardly the case.

Some may see the deaf language simply as an alternative method of communication, but it contains so much depth. It is an evolving culture with history, values, art, traditions and social beliefs.

While different versions of the language may be spoken throughout different parts of the country, sign language still has the power to unite. It has allowed humankind more opportunities to connect, grow, learn, inspire and share with people that are virtually the same, but uniquely different.