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What does "lexicalized fingerspelling" mean?

Easy definition:  Lexicalized fingerspelling is fingerspelling that looks like a sign.
In ASL books a "lexicalized fingerspelled sign" is indicated by the symbol # preceding the sign. 

For example:  #BUSY
The # symbol before the sign BUSY means you would use the fingerspelled version of "busy" that has been mutated to the extent that it looks like a sign rather than just fingerspelling.

The # symbol, which goes by many names, (number sign, crosshatch character, pound sign, hash, octothorpe, etc.) is used to indicate the lexicalization of a fingerspelled word. (For example: #ALL, #WHAT, #BUSY). When you "lexicalize" a fingerspelled word, you mutate the spelling so that it is produced more like a sign than a fingerspelled word.

A student asks:   "When we see #busy, do we sign the # sign and then the word busy?"
Response:  No.  The # sign is simply a way to indicate on paper or on the screen that a concept is a "lexicalized fingerspelled word."  Lexicalization means that the manner of spelling is different from normal spelling.  A lexicalized spelled concept will actually look more like a sign than fingerspelling.
For example:  #WHAT is actually spelled  palm facing up/back, hand moving downward/ forward, changing from a "W" into a "T."  (You drop the H and the A.)

Advanced Reading:

The word "Lexical" means "having the characteristics of a lexeme."  A lexeme is the fundamental unit of the lexicon of a language.
So what does that mean?  Let me give you an example:  the word "spell" is a lexeme.  "Spells, spelled, and spelling" are all forms of the English lexeme "spell." 
The "lexicon of a language is its "vocabulary."  So "lexicon" is another word for "vocabulary."
So, you can think of it this way:
"Lexeme" basically means "word."
"Lexicon" basically means "vocabulary."
"Lexical" basically means "word-like" or "like a word."
In our case, it means, "like a sign," or more specifically, "done in such a way as to have the characteristics of a sign."

In a message dated 1/10/2007 9:24:05 AM Pacific Standard Time, sloveall_60@ writes:
Could you please distinguish for me the difference between a loan sign and a lexicalized fingerspelled word?
Sharon Loveall, M.A.
In the old days we used to call fingerspelling that looked like a sign "loan signs."
Then later we stopped calling such fingerspelling "loan" signs and started calling such fingerspelling "lexicalized fingerspelling." Which means, "spelling that has taken on the characteristic of a lexeme."  Lexeme is a fancy word that basically means "word" (or in our case, "a sign.")  Thus lexicalize fingerspelling is a fingerspelled concept that looks and functions more like a sign than like fingerspelling.
Then we started calling signs that we borrowed from other signed languages, "loan signs."
So, think of signs borrowed from fingerspelling as being "lexicalized signs."
Think of signs borrowed from other sign languages as being "loan signs."
Dr V

Some fingerspelled concepts in ASL have mutated over the years.  Over time they have changed to look more like individual signs and less like strings of fingerspelled letters.  For example, here are a few concepts that are commonly "fingerspelled" but no longer look like normal fingerspelling because they have mutated in some way.

The term "lexicalized" means to have become like a word (or sign).

Optional Reading

Jana Bielfeldt
March 19, 2003

Lexicalized Fingerspelling

      In the field of Deaf Education, many deaf education teachers and  hearing parents of deaf children try to avoid “fingerspelling” and of course, deaf or hard of hearing children are having difficulty reading. Lexidactylophobia is what Donald A. Grushkin (1998) describes in the deaf education field. Phobia in psychology means irrational fear or dread of a particular phenomenon or situation. Donald explained lexi in Greek means word and dactyl means finger. Many deaf educators are lexidactylophobia in classrooms. They have a negative attitude of using fingerspelling.

     What do we know about lexicalized fingerspelling? “ASL creates new signs in a third way – representing the symbols of written English with ASL signs.” (Lucas & Valli, 2000)  We see a lot of deaf communities’ fingerspell in their daily conversations. It represents words ideographically. Chinese Sign Language used written Chinese and syllabically system while Danish Sign Language used ‘mouth-hand” systems as well alphabetically are the examples of fingespelling. Robbin Battison, ASL linguist did on first research on fingerspelling in ASL. Lexicalized fingerspellings are signs and free morpheme. ASL researchers used # to mark the sign as their fingerspelling symbol for written purpose.  In fingerspelling, there are 8 of the changes that are part of process in the lexicalization process and it was described by Robbin Battison. (1978).

     Some of the signs may be deleted is one of the ‘changes’ process. For example, we fingerspell #YES, we delete “E” and sign “Y” and “S” While signing #YES, there are 2 handshapes in sequence.  We can fingerspell with more than 3 or 4 handshapes in sequence, here are the examples of using more than 3 or 4 handsapes, #BACK, #RARE, #SURE, #WHAT, and #EARLY. (Lucas & Valli, 2000) The location and handshape may change. Also movement may be added and their orientation may change, too. You may see a sign that is repeatedly, #HA is an example. It’s called reduplication of the movement. Using second hand may be added, too. We sign #BACK to express more emphasis. Lastly of 8 changes during fingerspelling is grammatical information may be included. Using this process, it refers us to people and places.

     As early as 6 months old, a deaf child attempts to sign such as babbling. (Bonvillian & Richards, 1993). Hearing babies babble all the time. It’s the same way deaf babies or -small children who are exposed on signing babbles through moving their fingers or hands. They imitate fingerspelling through wiggles of the fingers same as hearing children will play with letters in written.

     Children fingerspell as they practice and it helps develop their everyday life with their language use and how they write on a paper. (Padden, 1990) Futher, Gates, and Chase, (1976) found that children who are deaf showed their spelling ability was greater than hearing children because of visual recognizing the word and use fingerspell. Deaf educators must realize it’s important to realize they must teach deaf children to recognize the link between fingerspelling and written language. (Grushkin, 1998) By doing that, their language boosts up and they can be comfortable in reading and understanding.

     Teachers of the Deaf need to realize it’s important not to avoid fingerspelling approach to support the literacy and vocabulary in deaf children’s language develop. They should be able to express and receptive skills. They also should know when and how to use fingerspelling. They need to be aware of the important of using lexicaled fingerspelling approach and how this will benefit children from elementary to high school level. (Grushkin, 1998)


     Grushkin, Donald (1998). Lexidactylophobia: The (Irrational) Fear of Fingerspelling American Annals of the Deaf, 404-414

      Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (2002). Linguistics of American Sign Language: Lexicalized Fingerspelling & Loan Signs.  Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press

 Battison, R. (1978). Lexical borrowing in American Sign Language. Silver Spring, MD. Linstok Press.

 Gates, A. I. & Chase, E.H.(1976) Methods and theories of learning to spell test by studies of deaf children.. Visible Language. 339-350

 Padden, C.A. (1990) Deaf Children and Literacy: Literacy Lessons.  (ERIC Documentation Reproduction Service No ED 321 069)

In a message dated 8/28/2003 11:01:26 AM Pacific Daylight Time, a student writes:

Hi Bill:
What is the world's best video series for Fingerspelling receptive practice?
DVD would be terrific, because I can slow that down as necessary to decipher the words.
You name it, I'll jump on it.

Dear student,
As far as videos go...I recommend "Groode, J. L., Holcomb, T., & Dawn Sign Press. (1992). Fingerspelling, expressive & receptive fluency a video guide. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press" for beginners. But since you are not a beginner I'd recommend you get a  little fingerspelling book (I think it is titled "Expressive and Receptive Fingerspelling for Hearing Adults" or something like that) and use it to make your own practice video by spelling words to a camcorder while voicing what your are spelling. Then later (a day or two) watch the video with the sound off and see how you do. You can use it as a written test if you'd like, and then play it back with the sound on to check your answers.
Or you can use the practice sheets from my fingerspelling pages to make a video.
I just looked up the title of that book.  It is:

Guillory, LaVara M.: Expressive and receptive fingerspelling for hearing adults. Baton Rouge : Claitor´s Publ. 1988 - 42 p.: Paperback

Note, some highbrows (or monobrows?) may take exception to this book.  It is not in vogue.  But I personally feel it presents a very intelligent and effective approach to fingerspelling success for Hearing adult ASL-as-a-second-language learners.

Take care,

In a message dated 2/22/2005 8:50:46 AM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:

     I just found your site and I am excited to be able to use it. I am currently enrolled in class and will soon graduate. I am taking a class in ASL linguistics and have had the following question posed to me for homework. When do you use the Lexicalized sign or the ASL sign for the following words? #BUSY BUSY, #CAR , #BED, BED.
When would you use one over the other? When would your fingerspell #BUSY instead of using the BUSY? etc..

In a message dated 2/22/2005 12:05:28 PM Pacific Daylight Time, BillVicars writes:
Good question. And did your teacher assign me as the person to contact to do your homework for you or did he mention a textbook where you could find that information?
Please don't be offended by what I just said. But seriously, what book or resource has he provided to you to find the answer?
Here's "one" example of when I'd use a lexicalized fingerspelled sign over the regular sign:
* If I'm holding a sandwich in one hand.
A general note: Lexicalization of fingerspelling is a process that happens over time. Some words are fully lexicalized but many words are not yet "fully lexicalized." It is going to vary from user to user.
If you DO find a clear, well described set of "rules" for when to and not to use lexicalized fingerspelling I'd LOVE to see it.
Dr. Bill

In a message dated 2/22/2005 12:21:54 PM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
No, no textbook type research. We are just supposed to ask people who are deaf, Coda's or interpreter's what they do and then write a one page essay on it. I just chose you because I happened on your web site and I was impressed that you might have a different perspective. So any more words of wisdom? I would really appreciate your response.


Ah, I see. are a few more situations for lexicalization and/or to spell something instead of sign it:
1. To emphasize a point.
2. To make a comparison (spell on different hands)
3. To incorporate directionality (establish verb agreement): Example: GIVE B-A-C-K-(to a specific person.) The sign moves in a specific direction.
4. To save effort. It is faster to spell C-A-R than to sign CAR. It is faster and easier to spell D-A-Y than to sign DAY.
5. Older signers who learned ASL before the introduction of various signed concepts. These individuals sometimes continue to fingerspell such concepts instead of adopting the new signs.
6. To allow for one handed signing while driving, eating, or similar activities.
7.  To resist changes to your language that you are not comfortable with.  For example, using the lexicalized form of "email"  (The letters "E-M-I-L" (starting with an "e" and then using partially formed/overlapping "m/a/i" letters and ending with a strong L or a deformed ILY handshape) -- moving toward the person receiving the email) rather than adopting the sign "EMAIL."
--Dr. Vicars

In a message dated 2/22/2005 1:11:26 PM Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
ANything specific on those three words? #CAR #BUSY #BED?  For example, you would not sign BED when talking about the bed of a pick up truck or a flower bed. It was suggested to me that your would #BUSY when talking about the photo copier being busy, or the phone line was busy. and BUSY would be more for a person being busy.

What so you think?

Yeah...I know what you are talking about.  It has to do with semantics.  Certain signs have a specific meaning and can't be used to mean other things.  For example, the sign "BED" (flat hand against side of head) refers to the thing you sleep in.  The sign BED would not be appropriate if you were talking about a truck bed or a flower bed.  You'd fingerspell B-E-D in those circumstances. 
Phones are B-U-S-Y (fingerspelled)  not BUSY (signed).  Also there is a difference between #BUSY (lexicalized sign)  and B-U-S-Y (fingerspelled sign).   I just interviewed three Deaf co-workers (capital D) and they all used #BUSY to mean "very busy" and B-U-S-Y to indicate a busy dial tone.
Dr. Vicars

Lexicalized Fingerspelled Signs

 Lexicalized Fingerspelled Words are words that look fingerspelled, but are in fact signs.  They are words that were originally fingerspelled but have evolved.  Sometimes they include movements.  Sometimes they exclude letters.  No matter what they do, just remember, they are no longer to be considered "just" fingerspelling, they have "evolved" into sign-like constructs.

Lexicalized Fingerspelled Words using only 2 Letters:


OK                                 DO                                           IF

 TB                                NG (no good)                         EX

SO                                 GO                                          HA

Lexicalized Fingerspelled Words using 3 Letters:

 JOB                               TTY                                         YES

OFF                               FIX                                          ALL

REF                               CAR                                        BUS


Lexicalized Fingerspelled Words using 4 and 5 Letters:

BANK                                     BUSY                            WHAT

STYLE                                    EARLY                          CLUB

BACK                                     COOL                           PIZZA




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