Using hand gestures and body language is one of the oldest and most basic forms of communication. Before the formation of formal spoken language, visual gestures and body language were the most effective form of communication.
Scholars, historians and even religious texts suggest that people have been communicating using sign language for centuries. Let's explore the use of sign language throughout history.
Ancient Sign Language
One of the earliest written references to signing or sign language dates back to the fifth century BC in Plato's work, Cratylus. One of the characters, Socrates, says "If we hadn't a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn't we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?". This suggests that Deaf populations in Ancient Greece used body and sign language to communicate.
Another early reference to signing comes from what is probably the best selling book of all time, the Bible. The Gospel of Luke states that the angel Gabriel rendered Zacharias (the father of John the Baptist) unable to speak because of his unbelief, and that "they made signs to his father, how he would have him called."
The word 'signs' in this sense is translated from the Greek word, enneuo, meaning "to nod at, i.e. communicate by gesture". This likely alludes to an early form of sign language.
Early forms of Sign Language
A formal style of sign language emerged in Europe during the 1500's, when Pedro Ponce De Leon, a Spanish Benedictine monk, began taking note of how Monks taking the vow of silence developed a series of gestures to communicate with each other. Pedro further developed these gestures, and soon became the first recognized teacher of the Deaf.
Pedro's sign language was collected and published in 1644, showcasing how this early sign functioned (in Spanish):
By 1750, activists like Charles Michel de l'Eppe, a French priest, had established an official public school for Deaf children, the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. For his work, l'Eppe was considered the 'Father of the Deaf' and his school was attended by Deaf students from all over Europe.
Charles Michel de l'Eppe & the Old French Sign Language
The School saw the creation of the first sign language dictionary and standardised alphabet, called "Old French Sign Language", and this would become the foundation on which all forms of sign language today are based.
The idea of Deaf focused education spread through Europe and across the Atlantic. The first school for the Deaf in the United States was founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in 1817 with the foundation of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf).
In 1864 the American government, under Abraham Lincoln, established a college for Deaf People in Washington D.C, which today is named after Thomas Gallaudet, "Gallaudet University". Below is a lecture from the college from 1919, by Dr. Edward A. Fay.