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Who Invented Sign Language?

Who invented sign language? Was it one person? The history of sign language is very interesting! If you are looking for the inventor of sign language, the one person who made up sign language, the answer might surprise you.

two women using sign language
Today, Deaf people use
modern sign language to communicate

The history of sign language goes all the way back to the fifth century BC, as written of by Socrates. And it was also mentioned in Bible times.

People were Deaf back then, of course, and had ways of communicating through gesture. It was not understood then as a language, and Deafness was not well understood.

The first notable pioneer, perhaps inventor of sign language is Juan Pablo Bonet. He was a Spanish secretary to a wealthy family. This family had a Deaf son. Also, other wealthy families in the area had Deaf children.

Their parents wanted them taught and educated, just as their hearing siblings were. Some of the sons were in line to inherit the family estate. Legally, they had to be able to read and write in order to be considered an heir.

reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos
The Reduccion de las letras y arte
para ensenar a hablar a los mudos

So it was that Juan Pablo Bonet created the Reduccion de las letras y arte para ensenar a hablar a los mudos in Madrid, in the year of 1620. This translates to "Summary of the letters and the art of teaching speech to the mute". It provided the first recognizable sign language alphabet.

Now Deaf people had a set of manual gestures, or signs, they could use for communicating and becoming educated. So you might say it was Juan Pablo Bonet who invented sign language.

Then, in France in the 18th century, along came Charles-Michel de l 'Epee. He happened upon two young Deaf sisters who used a sign language to communicate. Charles-Michel de l 'Epee, a religious man, then dedicated himself to the education and salvation of the Deaf.

He opened the first free public school for the Deaf, The Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. He created what is known as the Instructional Method Of Signs. It is also referred to now as "Old Signed French" or "Methodical Signs." These methods were taught at the school. And he published an official manual alphabet, based on the signs invented by Juan Pablo Monet. Many of the letters are markedly similar to the American sign language alphabet of today. So when researching who invented sign language, Charles-Michel de l 'Epee is a very important figure.

sign language b c d
The Letters B, C, and D in Charles-Michel
de l 'Epee's Published Alphabet

Although not the inventor of sign language, two more men are important to note in the history of sign language. Laurent Clerc, a graduate of The Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, and his friend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet came to America.

In 1817 they founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford Connecticut in 1817. Later, Gallaudet's son went on to found what would become the now famous Gallaudet University.

Though this page covers more than just who invented sign language, it's important American sign language history.

Sign language exists not only in the United States, but everywhere. It differs from region to region, with different people who have helped it along it's way.

Language has a way of sprouting up wherever and whenever it's needed. There isn't exactly one person we can credit as the inventor of sign language, because it has been evolving for centuries. But thanks to the efforts of the men in this article, sign language has gained it's proper place in our world.

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printable sign language alphabet

Printable Sign Language Alphabet

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