I decided that for Deaf History Month, I will publish a profile of an influential figure in Deaf history and culture each week. This week’s profile is of the first person to publish a recognized manual alphabet, Juan Pablo de Bonet, a Spanish priest.
Bonet, who lived and worked in the second half of the sixteenth century, studied the work of Pedro Ponce de Leon, a monk who had been successful in teaching deaf children. Bonet’s interest was practical; he was part of the household of the Governor of Castille, whose younger brother was deaf.
Juan Pablo de Bonet’s studies led him to develop a comprehensive method of teaching the deaf. He advocated the use of various methods of learning, some involving speech training but also advising a focus on manual alphabets and signs to facilitate that learning. He stated that early training and consistency were vital to education for the deaf. One of his ideas for maintaining consistency was to have everyone who lived in a house with a deaf person ought to use a manual language.
One of the most important contributions Bonet made to advancing sign language was his publication of Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (1620; “Reduction of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf-Mutes to Speak”). This book addressed the aspects of Bonet’s research involving spoken phonetics and fingerspelled signing.
Although Bonet’s work was intended to teach vocal speech through phonetics, aided by manual letters to represent spoken phonetic sounds, his work validated the use of a manually signed language as a legitimate form of language and expression. Even more importantly, Bonet’s work was disproving an ancient idea that the deaf were incapable of learning.
Manual alphabets’ intended use is very different in today’s signing than Bonet intended when he published his essays, but his work paved the way for legitimizing signing as a form of genuine communication.