Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée

August 2, 2018
Category: Submitted Posts

By: Mary Bolin (07/20/17)

I am very interested in the Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée, who pioneered Deaf education in France and started a school for Deaf children, l’Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris in 1771 after having encountered two young Deaf girls in an impoverished area of Paris. He collected and organized the signs that Deaf people were already using in France, and developed teaching and learning methods. His systematized collection of signs is called Old French Sign Language. Striking things about his story include the fact that he understood that sign language was the best way for Deaf people to communicate and that he learned and used signs that they had already developed. It led to recognition of the needs of Deaf people. Wikipedia adds some interesting information to his story, including the fact that he was never actually ordained as a priest! (Due to political situations at the time.) It is also interesting that Deaf education became a public matter in Europe during the Enlightenment, when there were so many advances in science, human rights, education, philosophy, and so on. Abbé de l’Épée’s work influenced other educators in France, including Laurent Leclerc, and was a source for some later developments in the history of American Sign Language. Despite competing theories and methods such as Oralism, sign language eventually “won” as the preferred and predominant method of communication for Deaf people. I am interested in de l’Épée’s work from the point of view of linguistic analysis and historical linguistics. It is rather amazing that it took until 1960, when William Stokoe wrote his dissertation, for ASL to be recognized as a “real” language. Sophisticated linguistic analysis has been practiced since at least the 19th century, and it could have been recognized much earlier that ASL has a systematic structure, including morphology, syntax, semantic structure, and the equivalent of phonology. The 19th century saw huge breakthroughs in historical linguistic analysis. It is too bad that sign languages were not really included in that analysis, because it could have provided amazing information on how sign languages have developed, grown, changed, and spread.