Who Invented Sign Language?

The question of who invented sign language has sparked much debate and has a vague answer. If you want to know who invented sign language, you need to analyze the events in Deaf History.

Juan Pablo De Bonet
Juan Pablo de Bonet

Some scientists credit mankind as the inventors of the first sign language. This is probably true. Early man, before spoken language, probably used gesture. They most likely pointed and created signs for those things they couldn’t talk about. Early man was probably the first inventors and users of the most basic sign language.

Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee
Abbe Charles Michel de LEpee

Some people think that Juan Pablo de Bonet invented sign language. In the year 1620, Bonet wrote a book that contained the first known manual alphabet system. The handshapes in this system represented different speech sounds. This is a great accomplishment, but realize that he created the first known manual alphabet system, not the first manual alphabet.

Still looking into who invented sign language, some people think that the deaf people living on Martha’s Vineyard invented sign language. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) is an early sign language that was used on the island of Martha’s Vineyard that is off the coast of Massachusetts. Hereditary deafness was very common on this island starting in the 17th century. These deaf people were not the first to use sign language (Bonet came before them), but they did have an impact on the schools for the deaf that were soon to come.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee is a common answer people give when they are asked, “Who invented sign language?” L’Epee established the first free public school for the deaf in Paris in 1771. L’Epee educated the deaf using a standard sign language that he created. So, people obviously thought he invented sign language since this was the first sign language that was used widely.

However, they fail to look at the fact that children came from all over the country to go to L’Epee’s school (some even from Martha’s Vineyard). The deaf children had been signing at home (because of lack of other communication), and brought these signs with them. L’Epee learned all of these different home-made signs from the children and created his standard sign language based off of them. Just like Bonet, L’Epee created a system, but not the first language. L’Epee’s standard sign language eventually became French Sign Language and was widely used in Europe.

Laurent Clerc
Laurent Clerc

The first American school for the deaf was established in 1817 by Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. They are often credited as the inventors of American Sign Language. This is actually partially true. Laurent Clerc was from Europe and taught French Sign Language. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought Clerc back to America to start the first American school for the deaf. Like Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee’s school, children from all over the country traveled to attend this school, bringing their home-signs with them. These home-signs, combined with French Sign Language, became American Sign Language.

Like any deaf person would, the children who attended the schools for the deaf created a language to communicate. Spoken language is not the natural language of the deaf. They naturally defaulted to their native language–sign language. Therefore, no one person invented sign language.

The Answer

So, if you want to know who invented sign language, it depends on what you are asking.

The first person to use a basic sign language was probably early man.

The first to use a more complex sign language to communicate is deaf people.

Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee introduced French Sign Language.

Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet introduced American Sign Language.

There are different sign languages used around the world. They have all come about because of the necessity for the language, communication, and education of deaf people. Sign language has been created due to a natural process and the fact that it is the natural language for the deaf.


23 Responses

  1. No mention of deciduous people using signing to communicate with other tribes? The nomadic tribes of the Great Plains had difficulty communicating between themselves. The answer was the development of a sign language which made it possible to share information or do business. This method of communication was practiced with great speed, with signs flowing together, one after the other. First trappers then soldiers became familiar with this language, which was an indispensable method for some to develop a trade in skins and for others to establish relationships.
    Where is this fact located in your history?

  2. I love learning about different cultures and languages, so I found this article very helpful and fascinating. I have been considering learning ASL for a while now because it would help me cope with my psychological disorder. But now, after learning more about Deaf culture and history, I’m even more inspired! Thank you!

  3. I’m a 9 year old girl and I love sign language I just think it is so cool and awesome for people who are deaf I started learning sign language yesterday even though that I’m not deaf I can still learn sign language Sophie check my gallery you would see sign language pictures you can see the ABC’s the pledge of allegiance and some words

  4. Hi!
    My name is Arden Lisnoff and I have this huge history project for National History Day and it’s worth hundreds and hundreds of points. Can someone please leave their name on whoever wrote this article? I really need to know because of my project!
    -Arden Lisnoff

  5. Sign language is very cool and nice course I really love it but much thanks to those who sat down to invent ❤️👌🌹

  6. Are we still using the term “invent”, as in D’Lepee and Laurent Clerc and Hopkins sat down and started making up signs (inventing) for French and American sign language respectively? Or should we say they “introduced” SL?

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