Below you will finds some brief and basic facts about the history of Auslan. Interested readers will find much more information in Johnston, T., & Schembri, A. (2007). Australian Sign Language: An introduction to sign language linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A natural language, not an invented one
Auslan was not invented by any single person, hearing or deaf. Any language, whether spoken or signed, grows and develops spontaneously in response to the communication needs of its users, particularly when it is used (1) by an entire community and (2) in communication between parents and children, and especially when that language is the child's first, or only, one.
British origins in the 19th century
Auslan has evolved from the sign languages brought to Australia during the nineteenth century from Britain and Ireland. Auslan has been called a dialect of British Sign Language (BSL) and, undoubtedly, the two sign languages are very closely related. It is, however, probably more correct to say that modern BSL and modern Auslan have both evolved from forms of BSL used in the early 1800s, particularly those forms of BSL associated with the large residential schools for the deaf of the time. The first known deaf person to introduce BSL to Australia was the engraver John Carmichael who moved to Sydney in 1825 from Edinburgh.
The importance of the early residential schools for the deaf
Schools for the deaf were established in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860 Thomas Pattison, a deaf man educated at the Edinburgh Deaf and Dumb Institution began the Sydney school. At the same time another deaf man, Frederick Rose - who was educated at Old Kent Road School, London - founded the Melbourne school. Most of the schools for the deaf were residential and the majority of the students were boarders.
Evolution of an Australian dialect
Auslan has developed some distinct characteristics (in particular, some unique signs) since it first began to be used in Australia in the nineteenth century. New signs developed in the Australian deaf community, particularly in the residential schools for deaf children because signers may have had little contact with deaf communities in other parts of the country. Auslan has also had some influence from Irish Sign Language (ISL).
Early Irish influence
ISL was brought to Australia by Irish nuns who established the first school for Catholic deaf children in 1875. The Irish one-handed alphabet and a tradition of Irish-based signs was kept alive well into the middle of the twentieth century through private Catholic schools that used many Irish signs and one-handed fingerspelling, while public schools used Auslan signs (originally BSL) and two-handed fingerspelling. Separate education systems aside, the two communities mixed freely, with British based signing being undoubtedly the dominant linguistic influence.
A number of signs in modern Auslan clearly have their origins in ISL (and through ISL to the French and European signing tradition). Also as a consequence of this mixing and exposure to Irish-based signing, the one-handed alphabet (including its modern American form) does not feel quite so 'alien' to Auslan signers as one might expect. Initialised signs base on one-handed fingerspelling have been and continue to be accepted by this linguistic community, even though fingerspelling is regularly produced using the two-handed alphabet.
Two major dialects of Auslan
Though there are some minor differences between states, overall there are two main dialects of Auslan that have emerged as a consequence of the establishment of the two major residential schools for the deaf, one in Sydney (in the north) and one in Melbourne (in the south). The two sign dialects of north and south may reflect the original signing differences between the two deaf founder-teachers of the Sydney and Melbourne schools and the pattern of expansion and influence that the two schools (and cities) had. State and dialect differences are large enough to clearly mark someone's state of origin (and/or the school they attended) but are small enough not to seriously interfere with or hamper communication.
Modern Auslan is dynamic and changing
Today Auslan seems to be undergoing a period of rapid change. The enormous expansion of sign language interpreter services, especially in the area of secondary and tertiary education and in the delivery of governmental, legal and medical services, has put great demands on the language by both interpreters and deaf people themselves. These developments have produced three main responses: (i) attempts to standardise usage, (ii) the development of new signs to meet new needs, (iii) the borrowing of signs from other sign languages, particularly from American Sign Language (ASL).
Most members of the deaf community have a personal and political preference for drawing on the internal resources of Auslan to expand and develop its vocabulary. However, some Auslan signers either do not object to ASL borrowings (sometimes they do not even realize that some signs are borrowed from ASL) or are actually willing borrowers (new signs are adopted because they are sometimes seen as more prestigious). The fact that ASL signers also have English as the language of the wider community, as do Auslan signers, may encourage this process. Many borrowed ASL signs are technical and deal with vocabulary used in education and in written English. Nevertheless, many Auslan signers reject any attempts to introduce borrowed ASL signs when a perfectly good and adequate Auslan sign already exists.
Adapted from Johnston, T. (Ed.). (1998). Signs of Australia: A new dictionary of Auslan. North Rocks, NSW: North Rocks Press. (First published as Johnston, T. (1989). Auslan Dictionary: A dictionary of the sign language of the Australian deaf community. Sydney: Deafness Resources Australia.)