sign of the times | The story today
On March 18 this year, thousands of people from Britain’s deaf community gathered in Trafalgar Square to back the British Sign Language (BSL) Bill for third reading in the House of Commons. The BSL Act, which took effect in June, promised significant changes for the approximately 150,000 people who use BSL as their first or preferred language. By granting legal recognition to the BSL, the law ensured that public bodies had a duty to promote and facilitate its use, helping deaf people to access public services. Among the UK’s minority languages, BSL has the largest number of monolingual users. The law is also a powerful recognition of Deaf people as a cultural and linguistic group, helping to reverse decades of exclusion. (Deaf with a capital “D” refers to people – most of whom are sign language users – who identify as culturally Deaf, while the word “deaf” lowercase describes people who are hard of hearing and is generally used in the history of deafness.)
It was not until 2003 that the British government recognized BSL as a proper language rather than a “communication tool”, despite linguistic research from the 1960s showing that British and American Sign Languages (ASL) were complete languages with syntax and grammar rules. The failure to recognize BSL in the 20th century resulted in terrible academic outcomes for deaf children who had difficulty reading lip-reading lessons and were forbidden from using “monkey gestures” to speak to themselves. A 2014 report showed that deaf people had worse health outcomes because they were often denied an interpreter.
Exclusion of the deaf
Speech, rather than hearing, has been at the heart of deaf exclusion throughout history. People born deaf or deaf before learning to speak (prelinguistic deaf) were placed in a special category. Until recently, the term used for these people was “deaf and mute”, revealing contemporary beliefs about the intellectual capacity of prelinguistic deaf people. Although considered offensive today, this language continues to appear in discussions of historical deafness.
In the largely oral world of pre-modern Europe, speech was important in various legal contexts. Roman law codes asserted that since deaf people could not express consent, they should be treated as infants. This meant that deaf people could not inherit property, marry, make wills or take a case to court. The influence of the Justinian code of law spread these ideas throughout Europe, and by medieval times they were firmly entrenched in the legal traditions of different countries.
Henry Bracton, a 13th century English clergyman, argued in his book, On the Law and Customs of England, that the deaf should be classified as “fools” and “madmen”. In Elizabethan times, magistrates were routinely told that the prelingually deaf were not responsible for their actions. In 1588, the antiquary William Lambarde asserted: “There is no one to be punished who the law has refused the will or the spirit to do harm”, namely: “he who is born deaf and dumb”. In the following century, John Bulwer, an advocate for deaf people, lamented the legal situation, complaining that prelinguistic deaf people were “regarded as misprisoners in the wild, and wanting to speak, are regarded little better than animals.”
Comparing deaf people with children or animals reflected broader philosophical ideas about their ability. Plato asserted that since thought was articulated by speech, the congenitally deaf were incapable of rational thought. Arguments that humans and animals were separated by speech only increased the belief that deaf people were cognitively impaired, displaying the now familiar double meaning of “stupid.” In the anonymous medieval poem The Spade of Conscience, the author wrote of “creatures that are dumb, and have neither mind nor skill.” The Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot echoes this when he asserts that people born “deaf and dumb… can easily pass for two- or four-legged animals”.
“Talking with the hand”
The rationale for treating the prelingually deaf as infants was their inability to communicate. Except, of course, that they could communicate through gestures and signs, a rudimentary form of sign language. Throughout history, deaf people have spoken to each other, their families and friends using their hands, bodies and faces – much like today’s BSL. Although these conversations probably lacked the formal linguistic structures of modern sign languages, they allowed conversations between deaf and hearing people to take place. Some of the earliest records of deaf and hearing people communicating come from ancient Egypt, with text dating to around 1200 BC. J.-C. mentioning “to speak” to a deaf person “with the hand”. In Jewish Palestine (c. 530 BC), it was noted that in legal matters, deaf people could “communicate by signs and be communicated by signs”. Writing in the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo described deaf people who communicated with each other and with the hearing world through “bodily movements”, “gestures” and “signs”. Challenging the idea that speech was essential to rational thought, he asked, “What does it matter…whether he speaks or gestures, since both belong to the soul?”
In medieval times, signs and gestures were increasingly recognized as a legally valid alternative to speech. In addition to giving the deaf a voice, it involved the belief that the deaf were capable of rational thought. In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III issued a decree that allowed deaf people to make their wedding vows in signs; in the early modern period it was a widely accepted practice. In the 1620s, one of the Church of England’s leading lawyers, Henry Swineburn, could quote several different legal decisions from across Europe to assert that: “Those who are dumb and cannot speak, may lawfully contract a marriage by signs, that the marriage is legal”. ‘
What signs did people use in early modern England? In Leicester, a churchwarden recorded in detail the marriage ceremony performed for a deaf man, Thomas Tilsey, when he married Ursula Russel in 1576:
To speak his mind, instead of words, of his own volition, [Thomas] used these signs: first he kissed her [Ursula] with his arms, and took her by the hand, put a ring on her finger and put his hand on her heart, then on her heart, and raised his hands to heaven, and to show that he continued to dwell with her until ‘at the end of his life. end, he did it by closing his eyes with his hands and digging the earth with his foot, and pulling as if he wanted to ring a bell, with various other approved signs.
This is one of many examples of deaf people using signs to communicate complex ideas with a hearing world. In the early 18th century, there is evidence that the signs used were not mimes (as in Tilsey and Russel’s wedding ceremony) but complex languages that required special interpreters. When Abbé de L’Épée established a school for prelingual deaf children in 18th-century Paris, it appeared that his students were already using a sign language that had its own grammar and lexicography.
The ability to communicate by signs was seen as proof that deaf people were rational, but not by everyone. Beginning in the 16th century, many educators focused on teaching children to assimilate into the hearing world through vocal speaking and lip-reading.
In the mid-1700s, a Spanish nobleman, Juan de Velasco, sent his two deaf sons to the Monastery of San Salvador in Oña. There they met the monk Pedro Ponce de León, who taught the children to “speak”, in part so that they could inherit their father’s property. Like many monasteries, the monks of Oña used a system of hand signals to enable them to communicate during periods of silence. This may have helped Pedro Ponce teach the Velasco brothers. It was, however, his success in getting boys to talk that was celebrated, which allowed his work and that of his successor, Joan Pablo Bonet, to become known throughout Europe and to educators across the continent. attempting to reproduce their results. In Edinburgh, for example, Thomas Braidwood established a school for deaf children in 1760. Braidwood’s school taught its pupils to “speak”, which Samuel Johnson described as a “subject of philosophical curiosity”.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, these two different approaches to educating the deaf rubbed shoulders, sometimes uncomfortably. While schools like the American School for the Deaf prioritized sign language, others encouraged vocal speech (called “audism” or “oralism”). Vocal speech was increasingly seen as a mark of civilization, with proponents of oralist education drawing on contemporary discussions sparked by colonialism and race to argue that sign languages were a form of “savagery”. In 1880, an international conference of deaf educators in Milan passed a resolution banning the use of sign language in schools, with devastating effects.
At the heart of oralism was the belief that the signs used by the deaf were a poor imitation of spoken languages. Representatives at the Milan conference described the signs as “absolutely vile” and incapable of expressing abstract thought. This legacy has persisted, with sign language not officially becoming part of D/deaf education in the UK until the 1990s.
Sign language is central to Deaf identity. Providing legal recognition to this language – one of the most widely used indigenous languages in the UK – not only gives deaf people access to education, healthcare and public services; it also recognizes the humanity, culture and long history of the deaf community.
Rosamund Oates is Reader in Modern History at Manchester Metropolitan University.