ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |

American Sign Language: Fingerspelling and Numbers

Lesson: 1


Lesson topics:



lossing Conventions:  dashes, #,
Word Shapes
Deaf Speed
Lexicalization (intro)
Hearing Second Language Learners
Letter Groupings
Handling Mistakes:  slight shake of the head, don't "erase"
Double Letters:  slide, repeat, reform / internal contact, zz

Questions and Answers


Question:  What is fingerspelling?

Answer:  Fingerspelling is the process of spelling out words by using signs that correspond to the letters of the word.  In American Sign Language we use the American Fingerspelled Alphabet, (also called the American Manual Alphabet). There are many different manual alphabets throughout the world.

The American Manual Alphabet consists of 22 handshapes that--when held in certain positions and/or are produced with certain movements--represent the 26 letters of the American English alphabet. 

This course will focus mainly on how the American Manual Alphabet is used by signers of American Sign Language.


Question:  When do we use fingerspelling?

Answer: The full answer to that question is a complex and long one.  I'll give you a general overview here and then we will discuss examples throughout this course.

Fingerspelling is used quite often in ASL. 

The typical "these things are spelled" list includes:

- titles
- brands
- names: people, pets, etc. until we know their name sign.
- places that don't already have signs: states, cities, restaurants, stores
- proper nouns that don't already have signs

That list is so woefully inadequate as to be silly.
It only scratches the surface of the amount and variety of fingerspelling taking place. 

For example, flowers. 
Where are "flowers" on that list? (Other than the sign "ROSE" there really aren't any well established signs for "flowers").
How about food?
While there are quite a few signs for various food items, there are thousands of types of foods that have no established sign.  Hold on to your chair when I tell you this--there isn't even a widely accepted sign for burrito.  (As opposed to a burro, which is a small donkey.  We do have a sign for "donkey," but try showing a picture of a both a donkey AND a mule to 10 different Deaf people and watch 'em tell you "mule is spelled.")  And a mule is a relatively common animal -- don't even get me started on "ring-tailed lemurs!"

I collect ASL dictionaries. Some are quite large.  I have (if I can find it again) a printed sign language dictionary that was published "many" years ago (by the Oregon School for the Deaf, in Salem) that has about 10,000 individual signs  (not exactly "pure ASL," but ASL vocabulary with a bunch of Signed English signs).

I've also got an ordinary college-level English dictionary on my shelf. It has about 180,000 words in it.

Do the math.  180,000 "words" minus 10,000 "signs" leaves about 170,000 "words" unaccounted for.

What to do?  Hmmmm. 

Well it is a fact that a huge number of "signs" are not yet in any dictionary (online or otherwise -- yet). 

It is also a fact that we can use existing signs to clearly express almost any concept.  For example, I've never see the concept "Venn Diagram" show up in an ASL dictionary listing, but earlier today I signed it while chatting with a friend.  I did so by using my hands and fingers to show the shapes and then adding the sign "OVERLAP" (Note: As of this writing, the sign "overlap" isn't in any ASL dictionary either).

Now, if I want to express a concept and there is no existing sign for it, and there is no convenient method of using a combination of other signs to express it, or the closest existing sign has multiple meanings and I want to specify a less common meaning of that sign, well then I reckon I'm going to go ahead and do some spelling.


Question:  Which hand should I use?

Answer:  You use your dominant hand for normal fingerspelling.  If you are left-handed then you use your left hand.  There are a few times when you might use your non-dominant hand to fingerspell, those situations will be discussed later in this course.

Glossing Conventions:

A "convention"

is the customary way in which things are done within a group.  The group of people who discuss and teach fingerspelling tend to use a few conventions.

Word Shapes:

Discussion Note:

Deaf Speed:

Discussion notes:

Lexicalization (intro)

Discussion notes
Example: T-R-U-C-K:

Hearing Second Language Learners:

Discussion notes:


Letter Groupings:

Discussion notes:


Handling Mistakes:

slight shake of the head, don't "erase"


Double Letters:

slide, repeat, reform / internal contact, zz


"W" vs "6" and "F" vs "9" 

QUESTION:  A student asks:  Regarding F and 9 and also W and 6 -- is there a slight difference of some kind or would the distinction come through based on the context of what you're signing?
ANSWER:  In general "F" and "9" are done the same.  "W" and "6" are also done the same. Once in a while you might see someone put the pad of the thumb on the side of the index finger for "F" (instead of just touching the tips together).  But that isn't a "rule" and tends to show up only when you are doing certain letter combinations like "S" and "F" (as in the sign for San Francisco).  The handshape of the preceding letter "S" influences the formation of the "F" slightly.


In a message dated 1/30/2010 6:58:04 P.M. Pacific Standard Time, Nikki H. writes:
static (F/W) vs non static (6/9); for 9 you tap index finger to the thumb and for 6, you tap index to pinky repeatedly. For F and W, you do not tap them repeatedly. This rule applies to saying 9 or 6 independently.

Good point.
Six through nine tend to use a double tap when done in isolation as part of a low context statement.
(Curiously, the double tap tends to disappear when 6 through 9 are used as a response to a question for which the answer is a number.)
A way to test that for any sort of consistency will be to ask your Deaf friends the following questions:
How many members on a team in football? (This question is just for distraction purposes. Answer = 11.)
How many innings in a baseball game? (to see how they sign "9")
How many players on a baseball team? (again to see how they sign "9")
Thanks for the response. :)
I appreciate it.



Questions and Answers: 

Is there a "right way" to fingerspell?

A student writes in to ask:

Dear Dr. Bill,

At church the other day I met a fellow who interprets for another church nearby when he isn't attending services here. We just had a few brief minutes to converse before he had to return to ushering duties. He's the first person that can sign that I've really approached. He was very pleasant and encouraging, but he immediately corrected me on some of the letters I've been fingerspelling, and I want to share this info with you for you reaction.

For c, d and o and p, he said that I should to sign them sideways, that is pointing off to my left, rather than straight on at the viewer. Yet my Costello monster dictionary, and the ASL Browser web site, and what I've learned from your web site, show them signed pretty much straight on at the viewer.

As for the letter g, I had been signing it straight to the left, so my thumb is partially hidden from the viewer behind my index finger. He corrected me in saying that I should roll the sign back towards myself 90% so the thumb shows itself too.

Also, the letter k he demonstrated was backhanded and pointing left as opposed to the frontal view I've been learning. Are either one of these ok?

The reasons he gave for the above changes were that the letters are more easily recognized this way. Nothing wrong with that.  But I want to learn sign as it is actually used in the vernacular by the Deaf, and so am concerned lest this advice not be practical, especially when it comes to my receptive learning. I need to be able to recognized letters signed as they are actually signed* - not just picture perfect and intelligible. (*one of the many things I like about your instruction)

Thanks for any insight you can provide.

Dr. Bill Answers:

Hi Scott,

If you were to go out and ask a hundred deaf people to show you the right method to sign the fingerspelled alphabet.-- you'd end up seeing dozens of "correct" variations.

This is such a "non" issue.  There isn't "one" right way to sign a "g" or a "k."  But beginners are always being told by "experts" that one way or another is the "right" way to do it. 

Allow me to introduce Dr. Bill's first rule for receiving signing advice from others:

1.  Smile nicely and nod your head.

Bill's second rule for receiving signing advice from others:

2.  Do your own research.

Congratulations!  Looks to me like you are following both rules very well.

As far as my contribution to your research on palm orientation for fingerspelling, I will offer my first rule of fingerspelling: 

1.  If it hurts, don't do it.

Lots of interpreters give advice on clear signing.  Their job is to sign clearly.  Their advice is accurate, pointing your palm at the person you are spelling to is clear.  It is a "clear" indication that you are going to end up with carpal tunnel syndrome. [wink] 

You said you wanted to learn sign as it is actually used by the Deaf. 

Go watch some 70-year-old Deaf people fingerspell.  They are spelling to their bellybuttons! Why? Because holding their hands down low and at a comfortable angle causes them the least arthritic pain.  Make sure to walk up and tell them that they are doing it wrong because some website, book, or instructor said so.  [grin + wink]

My suggestion is to hold your hand up at a comfortable angle.  If you're using your shoulder to raise your arm--you are working too hard.  If your forearm is totally vertical, you are working too hard. If your wrist is bent, you are asking for carpal tunnel.  Just bend the arm at the elbow and point your palm at a comfortable 340 degree angle.  Here is the "angle" for a right-handed person:

I hardly bend my wrist while spelling.  Fingerspelled letters rarely occur in isolation so it is simply not an issue. I bend my wrist a small bit forward on p and q so that my palm is somewhat more parallel to the ground.  The index of my "p" hand points at 10'oclock on a sundial.  That is the same direction of ALL my fingerspelling.  It is a mix of comfort for me and clarity for my conversation partner.  On "Q" I point the index somewhat downward.  Interesting though, when I'm showing fingerspelling to a beginning level class I tend to point the "q" index finger straight down.  I realize now that is just "teacher talk." Teacher talk is similar to "motherese" --the exaggerated method of communication used by mothers when talking with their newborn children.

It took me forever in my own signing to quit doing "J" with a big twist of my wrist and instead to it without movement in my wrist and instead rotate my forearm (as if screwing in a light bulb).  I was doing it that way so my students could see the movement.

When doing "c, d, and k" my palm points at the 10 o'clock on the sundial.  (Just like all my other letters.)

Well that's about it for now.  If you have other questions let me know.

Take care,
Dr. Bill



Helpful websites: ●  ●  

Lifeprint Fingerspelling links:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Lexicalized  | 11 |
Lifeprint Number links:   intro | 1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 100-900 | 1000 and up | Fractions 

(Note: This curriculum is being updated frequently.  So, links will change from time to time. I appreciate your flexibility and understanding.  -- Dr. Bill)



Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

NEW!  Online "ASL Training Center!"  (Premium Subscription Version of ASLU)  ** CHECK IT OUT **

Also available: "" (a mirror of less traffic, fast access)  ** VISIT NOW **

Want to help support Lifeprint / ASLU?  It's easy!