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Language in the Real World


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Permission has been granted to include this book chapter in DigitalCommons@Molloy First published 2010 by Routledge All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.


This chapter outlines the main concepts in the linguistic study of American Sign Language (ASL), a language used by deaf people in the United States and a large part of Canada. While the study of languages has been around for centuries, the vast majority of research has focused on spoken languages; approaching the signs used by deaf people as full-fledged, natural languages in their own right and therefore equally worthy of linguistic study is a relatively new concept. The first documented linguistic studies of signed language in the United States were carried out in the late 1950s and early 1960s by a team of researchers at Gallaudet University, led by William Stokoe. Stokoe and his colleagues conducted groundbreaking research, applying linguistic principles to what was at the time referred to simply as “signing” (Stokoe et al., 1965). Their work provided evidence that the signs used by deaf people were not simply pantomimed actions or spoken language produced with the hands; in fact, there are rules for both how to create the individual signs (phonology and morphology) and how to put the signs together to form sentences (syntax or grammar). Showing that signed communication shares all the characteristics that define other natural languages proved that what Stokoe et al. (1965) termed American Sign Language is indeed a true language and laid the groundwork for the field of ASL linguistics (Valli et al., 2005). In one chapter it is, of course, impossible to cover all of the aspects of ASL linguistics or to do justice to the remarkable number of discoveries that have been made over the past fifty years in this still-emerging field. Therefore, the focus here is on the main areas of linguistic inquiry and topics that are most of interest to a wide audience. Before we delve into the linguistic concepts, however, it is important that we look back to the past, to situate ASL in its appropriate historical context and to understand its relationship to other signed languages and to spoken English.

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