How Sign Languages Continue to Evolve with Time

By: Cheryl

By: Klaidi Shehi, Marketing Research Assistant


American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the most common sign languages spoken worldwide, with an estimated 500,000 native speakers. Additionally, it is used in Canada and several African and Southeast Asian nations. ASL has developed quite rapidly over the past two centuries, with its roots in the French Sign language and the early rudimentary signs from small communities in the Eastern United States. With the rise of the internet and the connectivity of deaf peoples from all parts of the world, ASL and other international sign languages are developing more rapidly than ever.

History of ASL

ASL began to develop in early 1800 when deaf education in the United States started to emerge. Due to the lack of resources, education, and the small population of deaf people in the States, education of the deaf was scarce as merely few believed that educating deaf people was even possible. That was until Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet began researching methods for educating the deaf after meeting his neighbour’s 9-year-old deaf daughter. He travelled to France since Europe had a more developed system for deaf education. There he met Laurent Clerc, an educator at the Paris school for the deaf ,where signs were used to educate their deaf students. Returning to Hartford, Connecticut, Gallaudet and Clerc established the American School for the Deaf in 1817. Clerc and the Paris School for the Deaf’s early involvement in ASL is one major reason ASL resembles French Sign language or LSF more than British Sign language or BSL. Since then, ASL has developed from what is referred to as the ‘old American Sign Language’ of Gallaudet and Clerc’s time to the modern ASL of our time, evolving at a much faster pace than  any other spoken language.

What influences these changes and why is it changing faster than ever before?

One significant barrier to change was that ASL requires speakers to have face-to-face interactions to communicate, unlike other communication devices like telephones or radios. However,  the rise of the internet, social media, and smart devices that now come with screens, has allowed ASL speakers to communicate, digest information, and develop their signing without the prerequisite of face-to-face communication. It has also allowed for diverse interconnectivity of Sign Language speakers from all parts of the world. An ASL Speaker, for example, can watch a TikTok of a British Sign Language speaker and notice a more succinct or commonly used sign for a word and adopt that sign into their signing vocabulary. Similarly, an individual could go to Britain and learn a new slang term commonly used there and bring it back to the States, where it later can catch on. This can also be viewed historically as older ASL signs have tended to go out of favour for being too complex or crossing more body zones.

ASL is acquired differently compared to other spoken languages as unlike those, ASL is not typically passed down through generations of families. More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, so they learn to sign from institutions or peers rather than from their parents.

Examples of how it has evolved

Here are some examples of how ASL has changed with time.

  • Telephone

As technology has evolved, so has ASL. In the mid-20th century, an ASL speaker would sign the telephone as an older candlestick phone. This then progressed from the corded telephone of the 90s and early 2000s to the modern time cell phone.

  • Dog

The ASL sign for Dog also evolved from the older and well-known sign that shows the act of calling a pet to your side that takes up more space and isn’t easy to see on a small screen. The newer version is the fingerspelling of the word “Dog.” The Letters “D” and “G” are repeated twice, which also resembling someone snapping for a dog to come.

  • Help

Help is another example of how modern ASL speakers prefer new, more concise ways of speaking and signing words as opposed to those common in the past.

MCIS ASL services and Accessibility Services

MCIS prides itself on providing services for all languages and forms of communication. We ensure our Accessibility services comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and provide services for ASL, Communication Access Realtime Translation, La Langue des Signes Quebecoise (LSQ), Deaf Interpreting, and Braille Translation. We at MCIS want our clients to focus on their tasks on hand while we ensure all communication barriers are removed through our services, whether it’s spoken, transcribed, signed, or translated.  MCIS also provides community ASL and accessibility services for services like healthcare and legal aid in hospitals and courtrooms across the province and for the children aids society. All our interpreters are also CASLI certified, ensuring they are qualified for any language assignment and can bridge the communication gap in the ever-evolving sign language world.

If you are looking for ASL or any Accessibility Language Services for you or your business, check out the link below to get started and see how MCIS can help you!


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