About HSLDB:

The Historical Sign Language Database (HSLDB) is an ongoing project to build a comprehensive platform to store and access not only the early forms of American Sign Language, but to link these with data from other languages both historical and modern to expand the ability of researchers to do effective comparative analyses.

Historical data sources:
In the early part of the last century, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) created a set of films to preserve and demonstrate the sign language of the period. They featured speeches, poetry and stories performed by twelve master signers. The master signers were of different ages, providing a sample of three generations of ASL users at the time. These films have turned out to be a rich source of material for analyses of historical change in ASL.

Around the same time that the NAD films were produced, three dictionaries of The Sign Language were published. These dictionaries provided a platform for developing a cross-referenced companion to the sign language corpora as documented in the NAD films allowing us to conduct further comparative research into the signs in use at that time.

To successfully develop a method for studying change and variation in sign formation, “periodization” is necessary. In our research, we establish the periods of time and use for each of the changing forms of a sign by noting and recording the dates of their use in our primary source materials, such as texts and films.

To date, the HSLDB includes the NAD films and historical sign language dictionaries produced around the same time. The transcription protocol is rooted in historical sources of individual signs, phrases and texts. In the process of building the HSLDB, we also discovered various types of signs representing different stages of development in the language that needed to be transcribed for form as well as content. Over 6,000 signs are contained in the current database.

Sign Language Research Lab:
At the Sign Language Research Lab at Georgetown University (SLRL), we are working to determine whether the universals of language evolution apply to sign languages as well. The SLRL is part of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery and the Department of Neurology at Georgetown University. We study American Sign Language acquisition, processing and history, and the evolution and structure of homesign, international pidgin sign and signed languages of the world.

We want to understand the nature of language and what signed language, in particular, tells us about how the human brain processes linguistic information in the visual-gestural medium. We also want to understand linguistic structure and processes of historical change in signed languages.

Project Director:
Ted Supalla, Ph.D.
Department of Neurology
Georgetown University
Building D, Suite 165
4000 Reservoir Rd. NW
Washington DC 20007

Project team members:
Patricia Clark, M.A., CSC
Donald S. Metlay, Ph.D.
Betsy Hicks McDonald, Ph.D.
Fanny Limousin, Ph.D.
Gabriel Arellano, M.A.

Other contributors:
Matthew Malzkuhn, M.A.
Wanette Reynolds, M.A.
Danica Dicus, M.A.