American Sign Language

American Sign Language
Langue des Signes Américaine (in the Canadian province of Québec)
American Sign Language ASL.svg
Native toUnited States, Canada
RegionEnglish-speaking North America
Native speakers
250,000–500,000 in the United States (1972)[1]:26
L2 users: Used as L2 by many hearing people and by Hawaii Sign Language speakers.
French Sign-based (possibly a creole with Martha's Vineyard Sign Language)
  • American Sign Language
None are widely accepted
si5s (ASLwrite), ASL-phabet, Stokoe notation, SignWriting
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Ontario only in domains of: legislation, education and judiciary proceedings.[2]
40 US states recognize ASL to varying degrees, from a foreign language for school credits to the official language of that state's deaf population.[3]
Language codes
ISO 639-3ase
Glottologasli1244  ASL family[4]
amer1248  ASL proper[5]
ASL map (world).png
  Areas where ASL or a dialect/derivative thereof is the national sign language
  Areas where ASL is in significant use alongside another sign language

American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language[6] that serves as the predominant sign language of Deaf communities in the United States and most of Anglophone Canada. Besides North America, dialects of ASL and ASL-based creoles are used in many countries around the world, including much of West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. ASL is also widely learned as a second language, serving as a lingua franca. ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language (LSF). It has been proposed that ASL is a creole language of LSF, although ASL shows features atypical of creole languages, such as agglutinative morphology.

ASL originated in the early 19th century in the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut, from a situation of language contact. Since then, ASL use has propagated widely via schools for the deaf and Deaf community organizations. Despite its wide use, no accurate count of ASL users has been taken, though reliable estimates for American ASL users range from 250,000 to 500,000 persons, including a number of children of deaf adults. ASL users face stigma due to beliefs in the superiority of oral language to sign language, compounded by the fact that ASL is often glossed in English due to the lack of a standard writing system.

ASL signs have a number of phonemic components, including movement of the face and torso as well as the hands. ASL is not a form of pantomime, but iconicity does play a larger role in ASL than in spoken languages. English loan words are often borrowed through fingerspelling, although ASL grammar is unrelated to that of English. ASL has verbal agreement and aspectual marking and has a productive system of forming agglutinative classifiers. Many linguists believe ASL to be a subject–verb–object (SVO) language, but there are several alternative proposals to account for ASL word order.


Travis Dougherty explains and demonstrates the ASL alphabet. Voice-over interpretation by Gilbert G. Lensbower.

ASL emerged as a language in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in 1817.[7]:7 This school brought together Old French Sign Language, various village sign languages, and home sign systems; ASL was created in this situation of language contact.[8]:11[nb 1] ASL was influenced by its forerunners but distinct from all of them.[7]:7

The influence of French Sign Language (LSF) on ASL is readily apparent; for example, it has been found that about 58% of signs in modern ASL are cognate to Old French Sign Language signs.[7]:7[8]:14 However, this is far less than the standard 80% measure used to determine whether related languages are actually dialects.[8]:14 This suggests that nascent ASL was highly affected by the other signing systems brought by the ASD students, despite the fact that the school's original director Laurent Clerc taught in LSF.[7]:7[8]:14 In fact, Clerc reported that he often learned the students' signs rather than conveying LSF:[8]:14

I see, however, and I say it with regret, that any efforts that we have made or may still be making, to do better than, we have inadvertently fallen somewhat back of Abbé de l'Épée. Some of us have learned and still learn signs from uneducated pupils, instead of learning them from well instructed and experienced teachers.

— Clerc, 1852, from Woodward 1978:336

It has been proposed that ASL is a creole with LSF as the superstrate language and with the native village sign languages as substrate languages.[9]:493 However, more recent research has shown that modern ASL does not share many of the structural features that characterize creole languages.[9]:501 ASL may have begun as a creole and then undergone structural change over time, but it is also possible that it was never a creole-type language.[9]:501 There are modality-specific reasons that sign languages tend towards agglutination, for example the ability to simultaneously convey information via the face, head, torso, and other body parts. This might override creole characteristics such as the tendency towards isolating morphology.[9]:502 Additionally, Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet may have used an artificially constructed form of manually coded language in instruction rather than true LSF.[9]:497

Although the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia share English as a common oral and written language, ASL is not mutually intelligible with British Sign Language (BSL) or Auslan.[10]:68 All three languages show degrees of borrowing from English, but this alone is not sufficient for cross-language comprehension.[10]:68 It has been found that a relatively high percentage (37–44%) of ASL signs have similar translations in Auslan, which for oral languages would suggest that they belong to the same language family.[10]:69 However, this does not seem justified historically for ASL and Auslan, and it is likely that this resemblance is due to the higher degree of iconicity in sign languages in general, as well as contact with English.[10]:70

American Sign Language is growing in popularity among many states. Many people in high school and colleges wanting to take it as a foreign language, but until recently, it was not a creditable foreign language elective. The issue was that many didn't consider it a foreign language. ASL users, however, have a very distinct culture and way they interact when talking. Their facial expressions and hand movements reflect what they are conveying. They also have their own sentence structure which sets the language apart.[11]

American sign language is now being accepted by many colleges as a foreign language credit;[12] many states are making it mandatory to accept it.[13][citation needed]

Other Languages
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Амэрыканская жэставая мова
dansk: ASL
emiliàn e rumagnòl: Lèngva di sègn americàna
한국어: 미국 수화
Bahasa Indonesia: Bahasa Isyarat Amerika
русский: Амслен
Simple English: American Sign Language
中文: 美國手語