"Observations of a Deaf Mute on An Elementary Course of Education for Deaf Mutes"

By Pierre Desloges (1779)

[From  The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education. Edited by Harlan Lane and Translated by Franklin Philip.  Washington, DC:  Gallaudet University Press.  Used by permission from Gallaudet University Press © 2006].



One of the earliest publications written by a Deaf person about "the Deaf experience" was "Observations of a Deaf Mute on An Elementary Course of Education for Deaf Mutes" by Pierre Desloges, a Deaf Frenchman. While Deaf Americans have an historical kinship to French Deaf people, such as Desloges due to our educational inheritance, this 1779 publication from a Deaf French man provides us with some of the earliest themes and topics related to the "Deaf Experience" that appear in later writings by Deaf Americans in English as well as other Deaf people across the globe. 

Desloges writing in 1779 develops and discusses a number of issues which remain important even today over 300 years later, such as:

  • the value of the life experiences of Deaf people;
  • the right of an oppressed person to defend one's own language;
  • the assertion that the French Sign Language  was a full language equal to others linguistically;
  • the use of signs for identifying an individual;
  • the difficulties of using a written language to write about a sign language; and
  • recognition of the methods controversy in the education of Deaf students.



Excerpts from Pierre Desloges

The Deaf Experience

Through his writing, Desloges describes the "Deaf Experience" of having grown up in isolation, learned sign later in life from "deaf comrades" and finally claimed it as his own.

Pierre Desloges was born on September 1742 in the town of Le Grand-Pressigny, France.  Desloges was said to have become Deaf after being sick with smallpox for almost two years.  This happened between his 7th and 9th years.  His family was rather well off, and so he had learned to read and write prior to this. Desloges' description of his early years after he became Deaf were included in his writing:

"...for as long as I was living apart from other deaf people, my only resource for self expression was writing or my poor pronunciation. I was for a long time unaware of sign language. I used only scattered, isolated, and unconnected signs. I did not know the art  of combining them to form distinct pictures with which one can represent various ideas, transmit them to one's peers and converse in logical discourse." 

Until he came to Paris at the age of 19 (In 1761-62), he grew up feeling isolated.  At some point after arriving in Paris, he discovered the Deaf community and began to learn signs.  However, it wasn't until he was 27 that he met "an illiterate and congenitally" Deaf man who taught him to sign.  Desloges shows how such an experience opens up one's world:

"...when a deaf person encounters other deaf people  more highly educated than he, as I myself have experienced, he learns to combine and improve his signs...In intercourse with his fellows he promptly acquires the supposedly difficulty art of depicting and  expressing all his thoughts...with as much order and precision as if he understood the rules of grammar. Once again I must be believed for I have been in this situation myself and speak only from my own experience.

There are congenitally deaf people, Parisian laborers who are illiterate who have never attended the ábbe de l'Epée's lessons, who have been found so well instructed about their religion ..that they have been  judged worthy of admittance to the holy sacraments... No event-in Paris, in France, or in the four corners of the world-lies outside our scope of discussion..."

"Every person carries the seed of it (sign language), so to speak, within himself; circumstances effortlessly promote the seed's germination and the language flowers without teacher or method."


In Defense of One's Language

Desloges worked in Paris as a bookbinder, and seems to have been compelled to write in response to a publication by the ábbe Deschamps, a Hearing educator of Deaf students who criticized the use of sign language in the education of Deaf students.  Thus, the title of his publication "Observations of a Deaf Mute on An Elementary Course of Education for Deaf Mutes" includes the title of Deschamp's publication.  Although the ábbe de l'Epée had recently established the first school for the Deaf in France, it was Desloges-ironically, never Epée's student-who defended both Epée and the sign language of Deaf French people.

"As would a Frenchman seeing his language disparaged by a German who knew at most a few words of French, I too feel obligated to defend my own language from  the false chargers leveled against it by Deschamps, and at the same time to justify the ábbe de l'Epée's method, which is entirely based on the use of signs."

Additionally, Desloges may have written to further clarify the misconception that Epee had been the creator of the sign language of Deaf people in France.  Of Epée, Desloges writes with the reverence held by most of the Paris Deaf community at the same time asserting the ownership of the language of the Deaf community:

"...once Epée had conceived the noble project of  devoting himself to the education of the deaf, he wisely observed that they possessed a natural language for communication to each other.  As this language was none other than sign language, he realized that if he managed to understand it, the triumph of his undertaking would be assured.  This insight has been justified by success.  So the ábbe de l'Epée was not the inventor or creator of this language; quite the contrary, he learned it from the deaf; he merely repaired what he found defective in it; he extended it and gave it methodical rules.  The learned teacher considered himself like a man suddenly transported to a foreign people to whom he wanted to teach his own native language; he judged that the best way to manage this would be to learn the country's language so as to give easily understandable lessons..."  

"The ábbe Deschamps is not alone in supposing the ábbe de l'Epée was the creator of sign language.  But this opinion is untenable, for I have already shown that my illiterate comrades who do not attend the gifted teacher's school make extensive use of sign language, that they possess the art of giving a visual representation of their thoughts and ideas..."


On French Sign Language, identifying, and Writing about Signs

While Desloges mistakenly identifies sign language as universal, he does note that it has many of the features of most languages:

"In sign language, we find verbs, nouns, pronouns of every kind, articles, genders, cases, tenses, modals, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and so on.  Finally, there is nothing in any part of speech that cannot be expressed in sign language."

Desloges also gives us an explanation of how individuals are identified through signs in France:

"...(t)o designate some close acquaintance, we need only two or three signs...But more signs are needed to name more distant acquaintances of whom we have only a rough idea or whom we know only by reputation.  First, we indicate the person's sex (this sign must always come first) then we make the sign for the person's social class as determined by his birth and fortune.  Then we individuate this person with signs taken from his profession, residence, and the like.  The operation requires no more time than is required to mention, say, 'M. de Lorme, draper, rue Saint-Denis.' In further conversation we have no need to repeat the same number of signs to designate the same person.  In fact, that would be as pointless as always repeating someone's first and last names plus all his attributes."

As a writer, Desloges noted the challenges in using the printed medium in which to describe a signed language:

".....sometimes a particular sign made in the twinkling of an eye would require entire pages for a description of it to be complete...I fear that this language, which has so much strength and energy in its performance, would weaken under my beginner's pen."


Educational Controversy

In his writing, Desloges points out that the ábbe Deschamps and the ábbe de l'Epée both included signs and speech in their instruction to some extent. Further, Desloges appears to have grasped the crux of the speech versus sign argument when he recognizes the distinctive goals of education as being able to use speech (Deschamps) in contrast with the goals of education as knowledge of academic studies (Epée). 

"The ábbe Deschamps too often forgets that the ábbe de l'Epée's goal is not exactly the learning of sign language.  This language is the means, not the end of his instruction.  The wise Epée overlooks no branch of  education for which the deaf are suited. "

 "...If in the education of the deaf we suppress the use of signs, it is impossible to make the pupils anything but machines that speak."