How American Sign Language is evolving with time (2023)

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) How Language Evolves:Ann Senghas:Rethinking Recapitulation:Structure in Nicaraguan Sign Language

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.

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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.

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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) Understanding the Historical Origin and Evolution of ASL


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 Evolution of Sign Language | Bella Kim | TEDxKISJeju

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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 ASL change over time? ›

Today's ASL includes some elements of LSF plus the original local sign languages; over time, these have melded and changed into a rich, complex, and mature language. Modern ASL and modern LSF are distinct languages. While they still contain some similar signs, they can no longer be understood by each other's users.

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.

What influenced the evolution of sign language? ›

ASL was then invented using signs from French Sign Language, as well as signs from the community in Martha's Vineyard, and may have been influenced by the signing system of the Great Plains Native Americans.

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.

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 is changed in ASL? ›

Change is signed by making both your index fingers into a hook while the rest of your hands are made into fists. Touch your hands at the wrists, then reverse your hands (changing their position).

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.

Has ASL changed since 1980? ›

Yes, ASL and other signed languages have changed (and still do) over time, like voiced languages do.

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.

Has ASL naturally evolved in Deaf community? ›

There are over 140 recorded living sign languages in the world today. These sign languages have evolved naturally, just like spoken languages. There is no “universal” sign language that is understood by all deaf communities around the world.

When did ASL gain recognition as a language What took so long? ›

Oh sure, ASL has been used in America since the early 1800's (and earlier if you include the signing that was being done in America prior to Thomas Gallaudet bringing Laurent Clerc from France), but it wasn't until 1960 that "experts" started recognizing it as a full-blown autonomous language.

What is American Sign Language related to historically? ›

American Sign Language stemmed from these signs as well as signs from French Sign Language that Gallaudet learned from Clerc. Gallaudet retired in 1830 and Clerc taught at the deaf school until the 1850s. By 1863, twenty-two deaf schools in the U.S. had been established. Most of them were founded by Clerc's students.

Who developed American Sign Language? ›

In the early 1700's, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts had an unusually high population of Deaf residents. The community created and learned a new sign language to help eliminate the communication barrier between deaf and hearing residents.

How did sign language impact society? ›

More than 70 million deaf people around the world use sign languages to communicate. Sign language allows them to learn, work, access services, and be included in their communities.

Why is American Sign Language Important? ›

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.

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.

How did ASL spread throughout 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. There, it mixed with local indigenous languages to create what is now called ASL.

What were two major influences of ASL? ›

Two major historical influences ASL traces back to: 1600s Martha's Vineyard community and French Sign Language (Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet). In the 1960s, linguists discovered that ASL is a fully developed independent language from English.

What is the difference between today and now in ASL? ›

A short, common version of "today" can be done by doing a double movement of the sign for "NOW." (See below). To use this version you need to have the right context. For example, if someone asks you, "What time is the meeting?" If you respond "NOW+NOW" it would mean "right now" or currently.

Are today and now the same in ASL? ›

To sign today, form both hands into the ASL letter Y sign, with your thumb and pinkie fingers extended and your three middle fingers curled in on each hand. Starting with your hands up, bring them down to your hip level. Today is signed exactly like now.

What are the causes of changes in language? ›

A language may also change due to regional differences. People living in different regions may differ in their vocabulary choices. In the same way, factors such as education, age and social status also play a part. When people interact, they sometimes pick new words that become integrated in their speech.

What is fastest growing language? ›

Arabic: Don't Underrate It

You might not realize how widely spoken Arabic already is, with about 300 million native speakers. It's also been deemed the fastest growing language within the U.S. and even the fastest growing language on the internet. Why should Arabic's growth matter to you?

What is the fastest growing language in the US? ›

According to research studies, the fastest growing languages in the United States in the last 10 years:
  • Telugu (150%)
  • Arabic (62%)
  • Hindi (61%)
  • Urdu (45%)
  • Chinese (35%)
  • Gujarati (31%).
17 Nov 2022

Why was ASL not considered a language? ›

Because of its unique modality -- visual/gestural rather than aural/oral -- many people wrongly assume that ASL is fundamentally different than spoken languages. ASL is a fully developed human language, one of the hundreds of naturally occurring signed languages of the world. It is not a derivative of English.

How many versions of ASL are there? ›

Like spoken language, sign languages developed naturally through different groups of people interacting with each other, so there are many varieties. There are somewhere between 138 and 300 different types of sign language used around the globe today.

Is it true that ASL is the 3rd most used language in the US? ›

ASL is the third most commonly used language in the United States, after English and Spanish.

Is black ASL still used? ›

As of the mid 2010s, BASL is still used by signers in the South despite public schools having been legally desegregated since 1954. Linguistically, BASL differs from other varieties of ASL in its phonology, syntax, and vocabulary.

What country is ASL most used in? ›

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.

What are the current advancements in deaf culture? ›

The deaf community has seen the development of increasingly sophisticated hearing aids and other assistive technology, a rapid increase in the number of deaf children with cochlear implants, growing acceptance of American Sign Language (ASL), and recognition of Deaf culture.

How technology has influenced deaf culture? ›

Technology and Deaf Culture

A lot of modern technology is ideally suited for deaf culture. Text and instant messaging, for example, are beneficial to deaf people because they allow conversation between people regardless of whether or not they are deaf and they do not require the use of sign language.

What technology has helped deaf people? ›

Tech advancements have made an impact on the everyday lives of many people—and the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is no exception. Advancements in telephones, hearing aids, FM systems, cochlear implants and other TTY technologies have undoubtedly made their marks on the population.

Who proved that ASL is a true language? ›

William C. Stokoe Jr.

How did deaf people get in touch with each other a long time ago? ›

Before the Internet came along, deaf people relied on TTYs and snail mail. They'd even drive long distances to their deaf friend's houses and wave at the window to get their attention!

What country has had the most influence on the creation of ASL? ›

For the invention of ASL, a Frenchman named Laurent Clerc had the most influence after he arrived in the United States in 1816 to spread sign language (Quinto-Pozos, 2008, p.

Is American Sign Language a cultural language? ›

It's dominantly spoken by Deaf people, Deaf families, codas (hearing children of Deaf parents), and deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Deaf community across North America. This language inseparably from its culture is the core of (North) American Deaf culture and is pride of Deaf people's cultural identity.

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

What is the oldest form of 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 made sign language successful? ›

In 1864, Gallaudet University -- the first college for the Deaf in the world – was founded. The establishment of residential schools and the college ensured that ASL flourished.

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

Learning sign language allows you to communicate with these lovely and vulnerable people around you, widen your networks and be able to help when required as well as raise awareness and sensitivity to the Deaf culture. 2-Learning a second language is good for your brain health.

How effective is sign language in communication? ›

An array of gestures made using hands, fingers, arms, head and also facial expressions; which also helps the deaf and dump to communicate with the people around them and vice versa. It allows them to understand the world around them through visual descriptions and, as a result, contribute to society.

What is the purpose of using sign language in communication? ›

Sign language is manual communication commonly used by people who are deaf. Sign language is not universal; people who are deaf from different countries speak different sign languages. The gestures or symbols in sign language are organized in a linguistic way.

Did sign language exist before spoken language? ›

No one knows exactly when sign language first appeared, but many sources agree that using hands to communicate has been around just as long as spoken language. And these early signing systems were the direct result of humans needing a new way to interact.

What do we know about sign language before 1814? ›

There is no record of ASL starting before 1814. ASL was formed with the help of Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.

What was the first ever 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 is the history of 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. The American Sign Language of today is actually related to this language.

Who invented modern sign language? ›

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.

Who proved that ASL was a language? ›

William C. Stokoe Jr.

Which countries use ASL the most? ›

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 ASL 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. Florida*: Yes.

Who was the first deaf person? ›

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

Who is the father of sign language? ›

The beginning of Sign Language

In the 1500s a Benedictine monk called Pedro Ponce de Leon used signs to help him educate deaf Spanish students. This paved the way and the first formal sign language was developed by Charles Michel de l'Eppe in the 1700's.


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