How American Sign Language is evolving with time (2022)

NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with Amanda Morris about how sign language evolves over time, the subject of her recent piece in The New York Times.


In 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the most authoritative English dictionary, was compelled to add the word selfie to its pages. And, you know, just as new technology and culture are constantly pushing the English language to grow and evolve, the same thing is happening with American Sign Language, or ASL, as Amanda Morris wrote about recently in The New York Times. Morris is a child of deaf adults, or CODA for short. She's an ASL user, and she conducted many of the interviews for her story in sign language. Amanda Morris joins us now. Welcome.

AMANDA MORRIS: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So, you know, unlike adding a new word such as selfie in a dictionary, your reporting reminds us about how new signs are evolving for existing words. Like, let's take the example for the word telephone. Can you talk about that? - because it is so cool how that sign has evolved.

MORRIS: Yeah. It's actually a really interesting sign because 100 years ago, the word for telephone in American Sign language looked like an old-fashioned telephone.

CHANG: Like a candlestick.

MORRIS: Yes. I was going to say, I don't know if you've got one of these in your grandmother's house or something. But you know the ones that you hold with one hand and then you put the receiver up to your ear with the other hand?

CHANG: Exactly.

(Video) When We First Talked

MORRIS: So the sign exactly reflected that. So the old sign for telephone has you doing one fist below your chin and another fist next to your ear, actually showing you holding these different parts of the telephone. But then over time, the sign completely changed. Eventually, telephones became hand-held with a receiver. Picture the ones where you had a little dial, like a rotary phone, you know, and you would hold up their handle to your ear. And when you do that, your hand kind of makes this Y shape.

CHANG: Like a hang loose symbol, where your pinky is near your mouth and your thumb is near your ear.

MORRIS: Exactly. So that became the new sign for phone. But now we've got smartphones, and you definitely do not hold your smartphone that way. A lot of people hold their smartphones - you know, you kind of cup your hand around it, and you put it against your cheek. And that's how a lot of younger deaf people sign it.

CHANG: Right. And now I'm wondering if the sign for a phone is going to evolve into, like, earbuds.

MORRIS: Yeah. Who knows? I mean, there's even some deaf people who have talked about, well, you know, why are we holding up the cellphone to our cheek? We don't even use cellphones that way. Why don't we have a sign for phone that looks like you're texting or something like that?

CHANG: Right.

MORRIS: So it's really interesting to see these conversations evolve about what should this sign look like.

CHANG: You know, I was particularly struck by another example. This is the sign for the word privilege. It got an update in a very, like, multidimensional way. Can you talk about that?

MORRIS: It's super-fascinating. So one of the older signs for privilege - it was sort of supposed to evoke the image of putting a dollar into a shirt pocket.

(Video) ASL SCIENCE: Definition of theory of evolution

CHANG: Right.


CHANG: To connote that privilege means more money.

MORRIS: Yeah. It was, like, used a lot to refer to having wealth and that being a form of privilege. But over time, we needed a sign to reflect a different type of privilege because our society has talked more and more about different social privileges such as, you know, male privilege, white privilege, that kind of thing. And so we needed a sign that didn't only reflect wealth because wealth isn't the only form of privilege somebody can have. So a newer sign that came about as a result of these discussions was to take out your pointy finger on one hand and hold it up as if it's a person standing. And then take your other hand, make it flat, put it underneath, and then raise that hand up. So it's like you're raising one person above others, and it's kind of supposed to reflect an inherent inequality.

CHANG: Right, exactly - inequality that could be based on a number of factors. Well, there's also this other facet, like how technology is shaping ASL because, you know, you point out that ASL users are communicating more often through smartphone screens now rather than just in person. And all the constraints of the smartphone medium - they're changing the way people sign, too, right?

MORRIS: It's fascinating because I can see it even within my own family. When I was growing up, it was really difficult to reach my parents because I couldn't just call them at any time. So over time, my parents got smartphones. And now I can just call them at the push of a button, and we can just sign to each other. And it's so much easier, and it's so much faster, and we can just get so much more across. And then I've seen even with my parents - my mom especially is all over social media, and she's been picking up new signs because of it for the first time. And this is kind of how the idea for the story came about - is that my mom and I were on a train. We met a younger man who was an interpreter, and he was telling us, like, oh, your signs are old. Your signs are old. And he was joking that, like, I signed like an old person because...

CHANG: That's hilarious. Yeah.

MORRIS: My mom and I had not been exposed to, like, a lot of these newer signs. But now, like, with social media, my mom is learning a lot - like, a lot more new signs every day. And she's, like, teaching them to me.

CHANG: That is funny.

(Video) Evolution of Interpreting - Messages - Convo

MORRIS: Yeah, it's really interesting. And so, like, I think it's just giving deaf people a whole new way to connect.

CHANG: You're bringing up this larger point that you make in your writing, and that is there are some real intergenerational tensions in ASL. I mean, just as a 46-year-old, sometimes I can't even understand what teenagers are texting to me. So I can imagine the same things are happening in sign language. Can you talk about some of those intergenerational rifts beyond just what technology...


CHANG: ...Has been forcing?

MORRIS: Yeah. So for example, the newer sign for dog kind of looks like you're just snapping your fingers, and the older sign for dog involved patting your thigh. My mom does not like the newer sign, and she prefers the old sign. She's like, I don't want to use the new sign. Like, I like my sign. And for some deaf people, like, the older signs are very cherished, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS: So they're very, like, special to them. They're like, oh, this is how I've always signed this word, right? And then there's also the issue of just understanding each other. I talked to some deaf people who have deaf children, and they say they have trouble even understanding their children sometimes just because of how fast and small their children are signing.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

MORRIS: It's almost like looking at a Rubik's cube of fingers, right? Like, it's just so fast.

(Video) CARTA:How Language Evolves:David Perlmutter:Combinatoriality within the Word:Sign Language Evidence


MORRIS: And sometimes, like, older deaf people are like, oh, we really prefer when you sign slower because it's so much easier to understand.

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS: And we like the bigger signs because they're easier to see. And they say that the small signs are harder to, like, decipher and to see. So there's some debate about that. But then there's also debate about younger generations coming up with new signs. So in English, you know, you always got new slang and young people always coming up with it. And it's the same in ASL except ASL is such a small language. And it's a really tight-knit community. And with social media now, all of a sudden, people are just proposing new signs left and right. You know, we've always had new signs in ASL and innovation, but now it's happening at this, like, breakneck record...

CHANG: Yeah.

MORRIS: ...Speed because of video and social media.

CHANG: Such an interesting, enlightening conversation. That is Amanda Morris, a CODA who's hard of hearing and a disability reporter. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MORRIS: Thank you so much for having me.


(Video) The History of Sign Language (Part 1) | Explained by krkumar Insights

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How did sign language evolve? ›

The origins of the world's sign languages can be traced back to six European lineages, scientists say. A new study suggests these sign language lineages are made up of three larger groups of Austrian, British and French origin, as well as three smaller groups of Spanish, Swedish and Russian origin.

Does sign language change over time? ›

The study also showed that the evolution of sign language grammar extends well beyond the initial formation once a deaf community becomes established, as seen in Nicaraguan Sign Language. Rather, sign languages are subject to the same linguistic processes that drive language change in spoken languages.

How was American Sign Language developed? ›

ASL emerged as a language in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded by Thomas Gallaudet in 1817, which brought together Old French Sign Language, various village sign languages, and home sign systems; ASL was created in that situation by language contact.

How long has ASL been evolving? ›

The ASL in use today is a result of 195 years of deaf families and students passing down from one generation to next the language that has become one of the most used languages in the United States of America.

Why is it called American Sign Language? ›

Early in the 1800s, there were only a few thousand deaf Americans. No standard signed language existed at this time, but various signing systems were created in the deaf communities. These sign systems are now known as Old American Sign Language.

What are 5 interesting facts about sign language? ›

Five Interesting Facts Most People Don't Know About Sign Language
  • It's the fourth most used language in the UK. ...
  • Different countries have their own versions of sign language. ...
  • Sign language uses more than just hand gestures. ...
  • Many deaf people have 'name signs' ...
  • Sign language isn't as difficult to learn as it looks.
23 Sept 2021

Is ASL a naturally evolving language? ›

Sign languages are fully-fledged, complex, natural languages, with their own grammar, vocabulary, and dialects. There are over 140 recorded living sign languages in the world today. These sign languages have evolved naturally, just like spoken languages.

When did ASL become the fastest growing language? ›

By the 1990s, American Sign Language became the fastest growing language offered as a second or foreign language, a trend that continues today. The best way to learn any language, including ASL, is to immerse yourself in the community where the language is used.

Who developed American Sign Language? ›

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.

Where is American Sign Language used? ›

ASL is used predominantly in the United States and in many parts of Canada. ASL is accepted by many high schools, colleges, and universities in fulfillment of modern and “foreign” language academic degree requirements across the United States.

Is American sign language based on concept? ›

ASL is based on concepts, and not English. Many people learning ASL as a second language, desire to sign using English word order, and words. However, ASL is based on the concept of an idea.

Is ASL a growing language? ›

The demand for ASL interpreters is projected to rise in coming years, as well. Over the next four decades, the number of people with hearing loss in the US is expected to almost double. By 2060, more people will experience moderate or greater hearing loss than the number with mild hearing loss today.

When did ASL become a real language? ›

In 1960, something big happened. William Stokoe, a scholar and hearing professor at Gallaudet University, published a dissertation that proved ASL is a genuine language with a unique syntax and grammar.

What initially helped ASL spread as a new language? ›

ASL emerged from a blending of French Sign Language with the sign languages already in use in America, brought to the school by its pupils. The school became the center of a signing community and sent its graduates to teach in new schools for the deaf, spreading ASL throughout the United States and to most of Canada.

Is American Sign Language used all over the world? ›

American Sign Language (ASL) is the most widely-used sign language around the world. Signers are spread across the USA and Canada, as well as parts of Mexico, Africa, and Asia. It developed when French Sign Language (FSL) was brought over to the USA in 1817 by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.

What influenced American Sign Language? ›

The American Adaptation

It was inspired by the French Sign Language, signs from Martha's Vineyard and might have been inspired by the signing system of the Great Plains Native Americans. Since the development of the French Sign Language and ASL, this language has developed across the globe.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of sign language? ›

Establishing Communication

Sign language allows deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate quickly and effectively with others who use sign language, or who "sign." Most deaf people use a combination of sign language, lip-reading and written communication to go about their daily lives.

Why sign language is so important for all its speakers? ›

Helps you communicate with everyone

Learning the skill of sign language shows the deaf community that they are not being forgotten and that they have the same access to communication with the rest of the world as anyone else. After all, everyone has the right to be heard and express themselves.

What is important about sign language? ›

Being proficient in ASL allows you to communicate with a wide range of hearing, hard of hearing, and deaf individuals—including students in mainstream and deaf school or university programs and deaf or hard of hearing residents and business people in your community.

What are the benefits of sign language? ›

What Are the Benefits of Using Sign Language?
  • Enables Children to Communicate Effectively. ...
  • Decreases Frustration. ...
  • Improves Child-Parent Communication. ...
  • Helps Children Remember Words. ...
  • Increases Self Esteem. ...
  • Provides An Insight Into Your Child's World. ...
  • Sign language Is for Everyone. ...
  • Builds Relationships.

Why is language always evolving and changing? ›

Language is constantly adapting and changing to reflect our changing lives, experiences and cultures. Language change enables us to accommodate new ideas, inventions and technologies. It's not just the words themselves which change; the way in which we use them can shift too.

What is a naturally evolving language? ›

In neuropsychology, linguistics, and philosophy of language, a natural language or ordinary language is any language that has evolved naturally in humans through use and repetition without conscious planning or premeditation. Natural languages can take different forms, such as speech or signing.

What makes ASL different from other languages? ›

ASL has many ways of combining into a single sign complex meanings that can only be expressed with a sequence of words in English. This is one of the many differences between ASL grammar and English grammar. ASL does not lack grammar; it has a grammar of its own that is different from that of English.

What is sign language for time? ›

American Sign Language: "time" The sign for "time" in ASL points to the wrist at the location where people used to wear watches, (before cell phones). Just tap your wrist twice. If you want to know "What time is it?" then do this same sign but with furrowed eyebrows.

What's the sign language for time? ›

To sign time, we point to our wrist and tap once, as if pointing to a wristwatch.

How much time does it take to learn ASL? ›

Are you thinking about learning sign language? If so, you might be surprised to learn that learning the basics of ASL can take just 60 to 90-hours. By comparison, learning a new spoken language like French can take anywhere from three to six months.

What is the fastest changing language? ›

10 of the Fastest Growing Languages in the World
  • Arabic. ...
  • Urdu. ...
  • Indonesian. ...
  • Chinese. ...
  • Hindi. ...
  • Korean. ...
  • Spanish. There are also plenty of fast-growing languages to be found at a regional level. ...
  • French. For growing languages at a regional level, French also deserves a mention.
4 Jun 2021

What is the fastest growing language today? ›

  • Mandarin set to have almost 1.2 billion native speakers by 2050.
  • Indonesian will be the fastest growing language, increasing by more than 200% by 2050.
  • German speakers will decline whilst Spanish will remain in the European lead.
  • Welsh speakers will increase by 32% and Manx speakers will double.
25 Oct 2022

Which language is growing the fastest? ›

While it is still a commonly spoken language, it's been overtaken by the faster-growing languages of Mandarin and Chinese. Spanish is now the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world. It has the second most number of first language speakers in the world, after Mandarin Chinese but before English.

How many people use sign language in the US? ›

Approximately 250,000 – 500,000 people of all ages throughout the US and Canada use this language to communicate as their native language. ASL is the third most commonly used language in the United States, after English and Spanish.

Where was the first sign language created? ›

The First Formal Sign Language System

Charles Michel de l'Épée was a French priest who founded the first free public school for the Deaf in Paris in 1755. l'Épée was the first to compose a standardized French sign language alphabet.

Why do they use sign language in the society? ›

Sign languages are an extremely important communication tool for many deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Sign languages are the native languages of the Deaf community and provide full access to communication.

What is the most used sign language in America? ›

ASL, short for American Sign Language, is the sign language most commonly used by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in the United States. Approximately more than a half-million people throughout the US (1) use ASL to communicate as their native language.

How many people use sign language in the world? ›

Worldwide, there are about 70 million Deaf people who use a sign language as their first language, and it is also the first language to many hearing. There are 130 sign languages listed on The Ethnologue language database, however there are more known but undocumented languages.

What is the basis of sign language? ›

The gestures or symbols in sign language are organized in a linguistic way. Each individual gesture is called a sign. Each sign has three distinct parts: the handshape, the position of the hands, and the movement of the hands. American Sign Language (ASL) is the most commonly used sign language in the United States.

What are sign languages based on? ›

Sign language is a non-verbal language that Deaf persons exclusively count on to connect with their social environment. It is based on visual cues through the hands, eyes, face, mouth, and body. The gestures or symbols in sign language are organised in a linguistic way.

Is sign language used around the world? ›

There's a lot more to sign language than meets the eye, however, and many languages other than American Sign Language (ASL). According to , there are over 60 sign languages recognized and used around the world.

Does ASL count as a modern language? ›

American Sign Language is recognized as a fully developed, autonomous, natural language with distinct grammar, syntax and art form. ASL classes are offered at elementary, secondary and post-secondary level.

Is ASL faster than speaking? ›

She compared the speed at which stories were signed and spoken. On average, the children communicated at the rate of 4.7 words and 2.3 signs per second. Signing and speaking the same story took almost exactly the same time. However, only 122 signs were used compared to 210 words, less than 60% as many.

Is ASL an artificial language? ›

Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages with their own grammar and lexicon. Sign languages are not universal and are usually not mutually intelligible, although there are also similarities among different sign languages.

When learning ASL what is taught first? ›

Sign Language Alphabet

Learning to sign the alphabet (known as the manual alphabet) is usually the first place to begin.

Who were the two main contributors to the development of ASL? ›

Who are the two major contributors to ASL? Laurent Clerc and the Vineyarders. Who is Laurent Clerc? the first deaf teacher in the US & Co-founder of the American School of the deaf in Hartford, CT.

How did language start and spread? ›

The gestural theory states that human language developed from gestures that were used for simple communication. Two types of evidence support this theory. Gestural language and vocal language depend on similar neural systems. The regions on the cortex that are responsible for mouth and hand movements border each other.

Who invented sign language and why? ›

The first person credited with the creation of a formal sign language for the hearing impaired was Pedro Ponce de León, a 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk. His idea to use sign language was not a completely new idea.

When did sign language develop? ›

The recorded history of sign language in Western societies starts in the 17th century, as a visual language or method of communication, although references to forms of communication using hand gestures date back as far as 5th century BC Greece.

Did sign language exist before spoken language? ›

Sign is quite possibly older than humankind. There are some who theorize that gesture preceded vocal utterance in human communication, and others who believe that language came straight from the mouths of prehistoric humans, not following an orderly development.

What was the first sign language? ›

The French priest, Charles Michel de l'Eppe founded the first public school for the deaf in Paris in 1755. Using the informal signs his students brought from their homes and a manual alphabet, he created the world's first formal sign language, Old French Sign Language.

What are the advantages of sign language? ›

Sign language brings many benefits to all children regardless of whether they are deaf or struggling with their hearing. As well as helping children to communicate and fully express themselves, it also improves their social skills by increasing their confidence and self-esteem.

What is the history of sign language? ›

Before we developed speech the form of interaction was via hand and facial gestures. As the deaf were often persecuted, sign language didn't develop from this point until the 1500s when Pedro de Leon, a Benedictine monk, created a form of sign language so he could communicate during his vow of silence.

Who made American Sign Language? ›

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.

Why is sign language important in history? ›

The history of sign language has an interesting past, being the first form of communication in early man. Sign language then went on to help end the discrimination of deaf people, and helped the deaf to become educated like their hearing peers. This start began in France and then spread to the United States.

Is American Sign Language a true language? ›

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, with grammar that differs from English. ASL is expressed by movements of the hands and face.

Who uses sign language? ›

American Sign Language is used as a primary means of communication by many Deaf people in the United States and Canada, as well as by many hard-of-hearing and hearing individuals, especially the children of Deaf adults.

How many sign languages are there in the world? ›

There are more than 300 different sign languages in use around the world. They vary from nation to nation. Even in countries where the same language is spoken, sign language can have many different regional accents that bring subtle variations to people's use and understanding of signs.

Who was the first deaf person? ›

c. 44 B.C.: Quintus Pedius is the earliest deaf person in recorded history known by name.

What sign language is most common? ›

ASL, short for American Sign Language, is the sign language most commonly used by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in the United States. Approximately more than a half-million people throughout the US (1) use ASL to communicate as their native language.


1. American Sign Language on the Trail
(Deschutes Land Trust)
2. ASL Literature
3. The Evolution of Sign Language | Bella Kim | TEDxKISJeju
(TEDx Talks)
4. CARTA: How Language Evolves: Language in The Brain
(University of California Television (UCTV))
5. The Story of ASL
(Arika Okrent)
6. Evolution of Sign Language
(Evelina Gaina)

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