NOTE: still in Ft. Lauderdale. Sister is having so many contractions she doesn't know what to do. I wrote this post yesterday on my blackberry while in the car at night and therefore incommunicado (someone needs to invent a deaf AND hearing-friendly light for the inside of a car. I'll be the first to buy. Enjoy my ramblings, and big love to Moi whose essay inspired this post! -Uncle Rainmound)
I read with interest Moi's post on "So Where Is ASL From Anyway?" itself a response to Carl Schroeder's post "My Ongoing Scholarly Pursuit." I'm with Moi: the evidence is that ASL was derived from LSF, particularly a coded form of LSF developed - and later rejected as a failure - by the Abbe de l'Epee. A lot of relevant information is in Lane's "When the Mind Hears." Here's my own contribution to the discussion, although for me it goes back to Massieu and Clerc, the golden boys of France.
These two famous students of the Deaf institute where the Abbe de l'Epee - and later Sicard - and finally Gallaudet came to work with Deaf people. Jean Jacques Massieu was the rebel who used LSF, coming from a family with six deaf brothers and sisters. Laurent Clerc came later and was the good boy who used "signed French" - a system developed originally by l'Epee and then renounced in his final work on Deaf education. In this final book L'Epee admitted his fake system was a failure, and the best means of education was through LSF, and seemed to hint that all coded sign languages must, because of the necessities of the visual mode, tend towards a natural signed grammar. (A hundred years or so later, we discovered similar facts about ASL and the various "signed codes" - the codes work for communication, but not for education. There's a difference between getting your point across, and becoming a model for understanding a new idea.) Gallaudet, however, preferred the more docile Clerc to the wilder Massieu; Clerc, educated in L'Epee's code, was easier to understand than Massieu, who grew up in a family of Deaf people and used LSF like Pollack used paint. Gallaudet found the code easier to learn than the language. What did he bring back? Clerc. It was Clerc's code that he learned, and what lay behind the code eventually developed into ASL: as I said, all coded languages eventually tend towards ones with real syntax appropriate for the modality of the language itself. As Allison Fanara reports, in a lecture by Paddy Ladd:
"Massieu and Clerc felt that there were two groups of languages - natural and artificial. Natural languages belonged to the Deaf and the savages. Artificial languages belonged to the hearing people. They believed that language was linked to Deaf biology. This was why Deaf people were more of a global group; they were the Sign Language peoples. Therefore, they were among the First Nation people, those who believed that they belonged to Earth, not vice versa."
It is true that, from the perspective of Massieu and Clerc, artificial languages belonged to hearing people - they were continually coming up with "new" ones. (L'Epee used a two-handed manual alphabet, derived possibly from one used in England.)
Another interesting question is: how much influence did Native American signed languages have on the developing American Signed Language? I do not know the answer to this but I suspect it is an answer derived from class. Most of the people at Gallaudet's school needed money to attend, and came from wealthy families; chances are they'd never have had a chance to socialise with Native Americans of any tribe. And look at this: here's a website with some French signs. (note - having problems getting this to work - any help?) Compare and contrast for yourself.
One other point. Does the American sign for "with" use the letter "a", implying a derivation of the word "avec"? This is debatable, but I don't think so - if only because the LSF "code" for the letter A is different from the American manual alphabet's code; in LSF, the thumb is extended in the manual alphabet. We'd need pictures from the time to figure out how it started, an as Carl Schroeder notes, there are few if any visual records from Clerc's time, although there are some alphabets scattered around from the 16- and 1700's.
The question is: is the "a" in WITH the alphabetical A, the handshape "a" (and handshapes are an alphabet of their own only partially derived from written alphabets) - or a derivation of the LSF version of the French "a"? Or possibly even a derivation of a French handshape which has nothing to do with the letter at all? You see the possibilities are endless, and of course they could have changed over time - we could have started with a French handshape that evolved into a French letter that moved to America and became an English letter and eventually turned into an ASL handshape... Language is fluid, and grows, and changes, and we understand it only when we understand the whole.
A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again. -Alexander Pope