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Pedro Ponce de León (1520–1584) is said to have developed the first manual alphabet.
In 1648, John Bulwer described "Master Babington", a deaf man proficient in the use of a manual alphabet, "contryved on the joynts of his fingers", whose wife could converse with him easily, even in the dark through the use of tactile signing.
The 2013 edition of Ethnologue lists 137 sign languages.
Some sign languages have obtained some form of legal recognition, while others have no status at all.
in which he presented his own method of deaf education, including an "arthrological" alphabet, where letters are indicated by pointing to different joints of the fingers and palm of the left hand.
Arthrological systems had been in use by hearing people for some time; The vowels of this alphabet have survived in the contemporary alphabets used in British Sign Language, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language.
Aside from Pidgin International Sign, each country generally has its own, native sign language, and some have more than one (although there are also substantial similarities among all sign languages).
One of the earliest written records of a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato's Cratylus, where Socrates says: "If we hadn't a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn't we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?
" Until the 19th century, most of what is known about historical sign languages is limited to the manual alphabets (fingerspelling systems) that were invented to facilitate transfer of words from a spoken language to a sign language, rather than documentation of the language itself.
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Linguists distinguish natural sign languages from other systems that are precursors to them or derived from them, such as invented manual codes for spoken languages, home sign, "baby sign", and signs learned by non-human primates.