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ASL - origin, basics and the topic 'shopping'

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

Watch a video, see how 'shopping' is expressed in sign language and learn about the basics and origin of sign language. (ASL)

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    ASL video - shopping

    It's important to remember, that ASL, like every other sign language, is an individual, linguistically independent, natural language and by no mean a translation of spoken English into signs and gestures. ASL follows its own rules of syntax and grammar.

    Start by watching the following video

    Christine Burroughs goes shopping and the example perfectly shows, how ASL consists not only of hand gestures, but also of lip-mouth movements, body movements, eye movements and even eye brow movements. Watch how she opens a valet, how her fingers indicate walking from one aisle to the next, how items are taken down from the shelves, boxes opened and the shopping cart is pushed. There is, of course, no spoken comment, but even a sign language novice can clearly understand what it's about.

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    Basics of sign language

    Facial expressions are as important as are hand gestures and body movements. If you signal 'sad', you should look sad, if you signal 'happy' you should smile. Hand signals and facial expressions are of course read simultaneously by the deaf reader. Therefore it is important to synchronize both. That's best achieved by keeping the 'talking hands' in front of the chest, just below the face. Take another look at Christine Burroughs and you will see how she accomplishes the synchronization.

    Names and special, sometimes technical, words are conveyed by fingerspelling. Otherwise , not every word is spelled out, which would take far too long. Gestures, like opening the valet, indicate that you want to pay. Accompanied by an astonished expression, it can mean: I don't have enough money.

    Here are the fingersigns for ASL spelling.

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    ASL spelling

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    Origin of ASL

    Syntax in ASL does not follow the rule of subject-object-verb like in spoken English. It's rather topic orientated and, if anything, follows French syntax. This came about because of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Philadelphia born theology student of French origin (1787-1851). He wanted to help deaf people in America and traveled to France, where a sign language was already established.He studied it at the school of Abbe Sicart in Paris. Accompanied by one of Sicart's assistants, Gallaudet returned to America in 1816 and started to seek financial support for a school of his own. He developed the American version of the French sign language and opened his school in 1817 in Hartford. He published many books on the subject and is regarded as the 'father' of ASL.

    Each country has its own sign language and there is no such thing as a universal sign language. Much like Esperanto for the spoken language, a sign language called "Gestuno" has been developed but it's not a language per se, more a certain set of signs and gestures which are universally understood. A kind of European Creole has recently emerged in Europe which is sometimes dubbed as 'Universal Sign Language' but is more or less on a par with Gestuno. It's likely that in future and with growing globalization of commerce and other interactions, efforts will be resumed and a universal language for the deaf will be created.

    For further reading and information on Sign Language history.