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Fingerspelling 2:

Fingerspelling 1:  Introduction  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8   |  9  |  10  | Lexicalized  |  Font  | Quizzes  |  Practice  

In a message dated 3/31/2003 1:18:58 AM Central Standard Time, a student asks:

I met a fellow church member who interprets for another church nearby when he isn't attending services at my church. 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.



REPLY:  Dr. Bill responds:


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 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 rigidly vertical, you are working too hard. If your wrist is frequently bent, you are asking for surgery.  Instead just bend at the elbow and point your palm at a comfortable angle.  (For you engineering types, it would technically around a 340 degree angle.)



I hardly bend my wrist while spelling. (Even the letter J.)  The difference between my P and my K is very minor.  Fingerspelled letters rarely occur in isolation so "extreme" clarity is rarely an issue. I bend my wrist a small bit forward on p and q so that my palm is somewhat 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,


Amber:  M and N appear to be the same, how do I sign the difference?

DrVicars:  Look close, the M uses three fingers over the thumb, the N uses only two. Does that help or do I need to be more specific?


Amber: Thank you, that does it.


DrVicars: How do you make double letters ? Anybody know ?


Amber: No


Tigie: Move your hand?


Jessie: Do it twice side to side.


Lii: Do you sign the letter and move slightly for the next letter?


Tigie: That's what I meant.


DrVicars: Right. You move the letter to the right (about two inches), or relax and reform the fingers--or you can use a very, very, small bounce (and it isn't so much a bounce as it is a tiny back and then forward again movement--less than a half-inch). All

three methods work well, but try to avoid any large bounces of the hand, -- that drives some people nuts.  If you are left handed and you are fingerspelling double letters then you move your hand to the left instead of the right.  Also, while I'm on the subject of lefties, the "j" curves inward like drawing a backward "j."  Righties draw a normal "j."


Lii: What happens when you accidentally sign the wrong letter? Do you just redo it?


DrVicars: I just redo it. I guess you could wave the hand back and forth in the air little bit as if "erasing" the letter, but 99 percent of the time it is obvious to the watcher what you meant so you don't need to worry about spelling errors.


Art: I have a hypercard shareware that shows the ASL alphabet.


DrVicars: That is good. How can the others get a copy of it ?


Art: If people want it, just send me e-mail and I will send it.

[Note: Art sent it and I have posted it.  Click here.  If you don't have Hypercard (now called Hyperstudio) on an Apple computer (or clone)-- the hypercard shareware stack will be of no use to you.]


Tigie: I've been wondering how to indicate a word is over before the next word when fingerspelling?


DrVicars: Most of the time in ASL spelling is not done for more than a single word embedded in a sentence. We just use spelling for occasional words, (proper nouns that don't have signs, peoples names, technical words that don't have signs, etc.)

In general if there is a concept that you need to express but you don't have a sign for it, you "explain" it. For example: For the color "maroon," instead of fingerspelling it, you would sign "RED, PURPLE, BROWN, APPROXIMATE." The sign for APPROXIMATE is: A five hand, palm out, makes a small circular motion (up, right, down, left,) as if waxing a car, (wax on wax off, grin) Think of having put the above mentioned colors on a piece of paper on the wall--then smearing the colors together with the palm and fingers of the hand in a circular motion. You would end up with a maroon color. The other person would understand what you meant even though he didn't know the English word "maroon." Many people spell the word then explain it. After you have established the meaning you can just spell it from then on, (or abbreviate it, or in some special instances--come up with a sign).


DrVicars: Anyway if I did need to indicate when one fingerspelled word stops and the next starts, I would use the same principle as you do when writing a sentence. You put a small space (pause) between the letters. Just like the small space there is between the words I am typing now.


Tigie: Do you put your hands down when you pause?


DrVicars: Not unless I want the other person to start signing. <grin> Suppose it takes you "point three (.3) seconds" to spell each letter of a word, then you would only need maybe a "point six (.6) second pause between words to indicate a break.

This might seem impossibly short and fast to you now, but think back to when you were in kindergarten and learning to read and write seemed so impossible. But realistically, most of us don't fingerspell more than a word or two at a time.  We use fingerspelling here and there but not to spell word after word as a method of communicating.  (There is however a system that uses that technique. It is called the Rochester Method.)


Monica: I was able to check out video tapes from the library this week. They have been a lot of help... especially since I have little contact with the Deaf community.


Lii: I did that, too.


DrVicars: Good! You all should try that.





Interestingly enough, I often see the sign "DID." This sign is obviously an English intrusion, but the fact is that many ASL signers use this bit of lexicalized fingerspelling from time to time. Notice how the pinkie comes up but the index finger doesn't come down (for the letter "i").  I don't recommend you use this in your ASL classes, but if you plan on hanging out with any Deaf people, it is a nifty little sign of which to be aware.

Animation: "did"



MUSTARD:  Spell it:  M-U-S-T-A-R-D
Most adult Deaf just spell the word "mustard."  We spell it very quickly. Many beginning level students, think, "Oh wow, that is impossibly fast spelling, I'll never be able to do that!" 
What the newbies don't realize is that when we are spelling such common words many of the letters end up being "half-formed." We start with a strong M and end with a strong D.  (I've noticed too that for many of us the "D" in "M-U-S-T-A-R-D" ends up being done with just the thumb and middle finger touching and the index finger is up. The other fingers (the pinkie and ring) are tucked in.  This is because you just did the letter "R" prior to the letter D.  Since "R" uses just the two fingers, the next letter takes advantage of those same two fingers.



Notes:  Fingerspelling 1:  Introduction  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8   |  9  |  10  | Lexicalized  |  Font  | Quizzes  |  Practice  


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