American Sign Language

American Sign Language
Region North America, West Africa, Central Africa
Native speakers
250,000–500,000 in the United States (1972)[1]:26
L2 users: Used as L2 by many hearing people and by Hawaii Sign Language speakers.
French Sign-based (possibly a creole with Martha's Vineyard Sign Language)
  • American Sign Language
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Ontario only in domains of: legislation, education and judiciary proceedings.[2]
40 US states recognize ASL to varying degrees, from a foreign language for school credits to the official language of that state's deaf population.[3]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ase
Glottolog asli1244  (ASL family)[4]
amer1248  (ASL proper)[5]
  Areas where ASL or a dialect/derivative thereof is the national sign language
  Areas where ASL is in significant use alongside another sign language

American Sign Language (ASL) is the predominant sign language of deaf communities in the United States and most of anglophone Canada. Besides North America, dialects of ASL and ASL-based creoles are used in many countries around the world, including much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language, serving as a lingua franca. ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (FSL). It has been proposed that ASL is a creole language, although ASL shows features atypical of creole languages, such as agglutinative morphology.

ASL originated in the early 19th century in the children of deaf adults. ASL users face stigma due to beliefs in the superiority of oral language to sign language, compounded by the fact that ASL is often glossed in English due to the lack of a standard writing system.

ASL signs have a number of phonemic components, including movement of the face and torso as well as the hands. ASL is not a form of pantomime, but iconicity does play a larger role in ASL than in spoken languages. English loan words are often borrowed through fingerspelling, although ASL grammar is unrelated to that of English. ASL has verbal agreement and aspectual marking, and has a productive system of forming agglutinative classifiers. Many linguists believe ASL to be a subject-verb-object (SVO) language, but there are several alternative proposals to account for ASL word order.


  • Classification 1
  • History 2
  • Population 3
  • Geographic distribution 4
  • Varieties 5
  • Stigma 6
  • Writing systems 7
  • Phonology 8
  • Grammar 9
    • Morphology 9.1
      • Fingerspelling 9.1.1
    • Syntax 9.2
  • Iconicity 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • References 13
  • Bibliography 14
  • External links 15


Travis Dougherty explains and demonstrates the ASL alphabet. Voice-over interpretation by Gilbert G. Lensbower.

ASL emerged as a language in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in 1817.[6]:7 This school brought together Old French Sign Language (OFSL), various village sign languages, and home sign systems; ASL was created in this situation of language contact.[7]:11[nb 1] ASL was influenced by its forerunners but distinct from all of them.[6]:7

The influence of FSL on ASL is readily apparent; for example, it has been found that about 58% of signs in modern ASL are cognate to Old French Sign Language signs.[6]:7[7]:14 However, this is far less than the standard 80% measure used to determine whether related languages are actually dialects.[7]:14 This suggests that nascent ASL was highly affected by the other signing systems brought by the ASD students, despite the fact that the school's original director Laurent Clerc taught in FSL.[6]:7[7]:14 In fact, Clerc reported that he often learned the students' signs rather than conveying FSL:[7]:14

I see, however, and I say it with regret, that any efforts that we have made or may still be making, to do better than, we have inadvertently fallen somewhat back of Abbé de l'Épée. Some of us have learned and still learn signs from uneducated pupils, instead of learning them from well instructed and experienced teachers.
— Clerc, 1852, from Woodward 1978:336

It has been proposed that ASL is a creole with FSL as the superstrate language and with the native village sign languages as substrate languages.[8]:493 However, more recent research has shown that modern ASL does not share many of the structural features that characterize creole languages.[8]:501 ASL may have begun as a creole and then undergone structural change over time, but it is also possible that it was never a creole-type language.[8]:501 There are modality-specific reasons that sign languages tend towards agglutination, for example the ability to simultaneously convey information via the face, head, torso, and other body parts. This might override creole characteristics such as the tendency towards isolating morphology.[8]:502 Additionally, Clerc and Gallaudet may have used an artificially constructed form of manually coded language in instruction rather than true FSL.[8]:497

Although the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia share English as a common oral and written language, ASL is not mutually intelligible with British Sign Language (BSL) or Auslan.[9]:68 All three languages show degrees of borrowing from English, but this alone is not sufficient for cross-language comprehension.[9]:68 It has been found that a relatively high percentage (37–44%) of ASL signs have similar translations in Auslan, which for oral languages would suggest that they belong to the same language family.[9]:69 However, this does not seem justified historically for ASL and Auslan, and it is likely that this resemblance is due to the higher degree of iconicity in sign languages in general, as well as contact with English.[9]:70


signing man sitting in the foreground, with a speaker standing at a podium in the background
A sign language interpreter at a presentation

Prior to the birth of ASL, sign language had been used by various communities in the United States.[6]:5 In the United States, as elsewhere in the world, hearing families with deaf children have historically employed ad-hoc home sign, which often reaches much higher levels of sophistication than gestures used by hearing people in spoken conversation.[6]:5 As early as 1541 at first contact by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, there were reports that the Plains Indians had developed a sign language to communicate between tribes of different languages.[10]

In the 19th century, a "triangle" of village sign languages developed in New England: one in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts; one in Henniker, New Hampshire, and one in Sandy River Valley, Maine.[11] Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which was particularly important for the history of ASL, was used mainly in Chilmark, Massachusetts.[6]:5–6 Due to intermarriage in the original community of English settlers of the 1690s, and the recessive nature of genetic deafness, Chilmark had a high 4% rate of genetic deafness.[6]:5–6 MVSL was used even by hearing residents whenever a deaf person was present.[6]:5–6

ASL is thought to have originated in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817.[6]:4 Originally known as The American Asylum, At Hartford, For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb, the school was founded by the Yale graduate and divinity student Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.[12][13] Gallaudet, inspired by his success in demonstrating the learning abilities of a young deaf girl Alice Cogswell, traveled to Europe in order to learn deaf pedagogy from European institutions.[12] Ultimately, Gallaudet chose to adopt the methods of the French Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, and convinced Laurent Clerc, an assistant to the school's founder Charles-Michel de l'Épée, to accompany him back to the United States.[12][nb 2] Upon his return, Gallaudet founded the ASD on April 15, 1817.[12]

The largest group of students during the first seven decades of the school were from Martha's Vineyard, and they brought MVSL with them.[7]:10 There were also 44 students from around Henniker, New Hampshire, and 27 from the Sandy River valley in Maine, each of which had their own village sign language.[7]:11[nb 3] Other students brought knowledge of their own home signs.[7]:11 Laurent Clerc, the first teacher at ASD, taught using French Sign Language (FSL), which itself had developed in the Parisian school for the deaf established in 1755.[6]:7 From this situation of language contact, a new language emerged, now known as ASL.[6]:7

American Sign Language Convention of March 2008 in Austin, Texas

More schools for the deaf were founded after ASD, and knowledge of ASL spread to these schools.[6]:7 In addition, the rise of deaf community organizations bolstered the continued use of ASL.[6]:8 Societies such as the National Association of the Deaf and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf held national conventions that attracted signers from across the country.[7]:13 This all contributed to ASL's wide use over a large geographical area, atypical of a sign language.[7]:14[7]:12

Up to the 1950s, the predominant method in deaf education was oralism – acquiring oral language comprehension and production.[14] Linguists did not consider sign language to be true "language", but rather something inferior.[14] Recognition of the legitimacy of ASL was achieved by William Stokoe, a linguist who arrived at Gallaudet University in 1955 when this was still the dominant assumption.[14] Aided by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Stokoe argued for manualism, the use of sign language in deaf education.[14][15] Stokoe noted that sign language shares the important features that oral languages have as a means of communication, and even devised a transcription system for ASL.[14] In doing so, Stokoe revolutionized both deaf education and linguistics.[14] In the 1960s, ASL was sometimes referred to as "Ameslan", but this term is now considered obsolete.[16]


Counting the number of ASL speakers is difficult because ASL users have never been counted by the American census.[1]:1[nb 4] The ultimate source for current estimates of the number of ASL users in the United States is a report for the National Census of the Deaf Population (NCDP) by Schein and Delk (1974).[1]:17 Based on a 1972 survey of the NCDP, Schein and Delk provided estimates consistent with a signing population between 250,000 and 500,000.[1]:26 The survey did not distinguish between ASL and other forms of signing; in fact, the name "ASL" was not yet in widespread use.[1]:18

Incorrect figures are sometimes cited for the population of ASL speakers in the United States based on misunderstandings of known statistics.[1]:20 Demographics of the deaf population have been confused with those of ASL use, since adults who become deaf late in life rarely use ASL in the home.[1]:21 This accounts for currently cited estimations which are greater than 500,000; such mistaken estimations can reach as high as 15,000,000.[1]:1, 21 A 100,000-person lower bound has been cited for ASL users; the source of this figure is unclear, but it may be an estimate of prelingual deafness, which is correlated with but not equivalent to signing.[1]:22

ASL is sometimes incorrectly cited as the third- or fourth-most-spoken language in the United States.[1]:15, 22 These figures misquote Schein and Delk (1974), who actually concluded that ASL speakers constituted the third-largest population requiring an interpreter in court.[1]:15, 22 Although this would make ASL the third-most used language among monolinguals other than English, it does not imply that it is the fourth-most-spoken language in the United States, since speakers of other languages may also speak English.[1]:21–22

Geographic distribution

ASL is used throughout

  • Accessible American Sign Language dictionary
  • One-stop resource American Sign Language and video dictionary
  • National Institute of Deafness ASL section
  • National Association of the Deaf ASL information
  • American Sign Language