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ASL:  Lexicalized Fingerspelling

First lets consider a general definition of lexicalization:

"Lexicalization: The process becoming a specific meaningful linguistic unit of vocabulary of a language."

Or in other words:

The process of adopting the characteristics of a word.
"The process of becoming word-like."

"To become a word."

Lexicalized fingerspelling is when fingerspelling has morphed into an articulatory bundle that has characteristics more similar to a single sign than a string of letters.

Lexicalized fingerspelling is what we get when we have morphed the letters so much that (to a great extent) you can't even tell what many (or most) of the letters were. Consider the lexicalized fingerspelled word "NO." Which we generally just call "the sign NO." It no longer looks much like an "N" or an "O." It is not "clear" at all what the original letters were. Oh sure, after you are told the sign NO comes from an N and O you can mentally think, "Oh that is obvious!" Yet -- it generally isn't obvious until someone has pointed it out.




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.

A student asks:   "When we see #busy, do we sign the # sign and then the word busy?"
Response:  No.  The # character 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).

<<Mimi writes:
I'm looking for the sign for CHIMPANZEE. Consider this is for children who know the difference between a monkey, chimp, gorilla and orang, but aren't old enough to fingerspell. Can you help?>

Dear Mimi (Melinda)
Hello :)
In American Sign Language there are no widely or consistently used signs to distinguish the "variations" of primates.
There are only two "popular" or "common" signs used for referring to primates. The MONKEY sign, and the APE sign.
The MONKEY sign is used to represent the smaller primates and the APE sign represents apes and gorillas.
The MONKEY sign scratches your sides upwards with both hands simultaneously and repeats the motion once.
The APE sign beats on your chest using alternating hands (in a fist handshape).
Note: You don't actually have to make contact with your sides or chest for either of the two signs. If you are hamming it up or being theatrical you will use bigger movements and more contact.
I would suggest to you that "Hearing adults" tend to underestimate the ability of children to fingerspell and to read fingerspelling. Many people approach fingerspelling as a series of letters on the hand. Children that grow up in signing households tend to handle fingerspelling as "signs" that have a general flow and shape pattern. At age 2, my daughter, Kesley, used to morph the letters V, I, and T together to express the concept of "vitamin."
Thus if you spell words like "chimp" often enough using fluent fingerspelling, the kids will pick up on what it means and will start doing their own "version" of fingerspelling that perhaps looks like the letters C and P. You would spell ORANG to mean orangutan. And eventually it would start looking like ORG then even "OG." This is known as "lexicalized fingerspelling."
Now, since I realize that you probably "still" want specific signs for primates (even though I've told you how it would be handled in a culturally appropriate way), I'll suggest to you the group of people that I would consider to be experts in the various signs for primates: The Gorilla Foundation.
I will cc this to them at and also to their "kid question email service: and see if they know of any signs for "chimp" vs "orangutan."
Or, for faster service, pick up the phone and call 1-800-ME-GO-APE (seriously, that is the number listed at their website). Or mail them at: The Gorilla Foundation, P.O. Box 620530, Woodside, CA 94062
Bill Vicars

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.
Allow me to point out that there is a difference between lexicalized fingerspelling and "fingerspelled words."  As time goes on I will be reviewing my website and pointing out that it would be best if we were to use the # sign in front of lexicalized concepts and use dashes between the letters of fingerspelled concepts.
Anyway, here are a few more situations for lexicalization and/or to spell something instead of using a typical sign:
1. To emphasize a point.
2. To make a comparison (spell on different hands)
3. To incorporate directionality (establish verb agreement): Example: GIVE #BACK-(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."

8.  When the semantic range of the sign doesn't extend to the concept to which you are referring. For example the sign BED as used in ASL generally only refers to the thing that you sleep on. So to sign FLOWER-BED would be a mistake.  Instead you would sign FLOWER and spell B-E-D.
--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

Below is as list of words that you commonly see fingerspelled in the Deaf community and also lexicalized fingerspelling.
Note there is a difference between lexicalized fingerspelling and "words that are commonly fingerspelled."
Later I will go through this list and separate out the lexicalized words from the merely "commonly fingerspelled" words. A third distinction will be "abbreviated" words.
Note to people who "copy this list" -- please include a link to if posting to an online site, and or a reference it using in print material. --Thanks.

ABT (about as in WH question facial expression "what are you talking about?")
AC (air conditioning)
APT (apartment)
AUD (auditorium)
AVE (avenue)
B.S. (bullpucky)
BA (bachelor of arts degree)
BACK (area, direction or status)
BBQ (barbeque)
BEACH (modified letters)
BILLS (as in debts to pay)
BLVD (boulevard)
BUS (what you ride on)
BUSY (person or phone)
CAR (the "R" ends up pointing more forward than up)
CC (close captioned, or cross country)
CLUB (often drops the letter "U")
CO (company)
CODA (child of deaf adult)
CS ("common sense" off corner of forehead)
DEPT (department)
DO (done with the palms up, "on its back")
DO-DO-("what do")
DOG (looks like you are snapping your fingers)
DPN (Deaf President Now)
Dr. (courtesy title)
DS (drug store)
EARLY (moves in a circle--up, right, down, left)
F___-(the "F" word)
FAV (favorite)
GO (uses a flip/twist of the wrist, "wide-G" closes the index and thumb)
GRAND (as in grand-children)
GUIDE (as in "TV Guide")
HA (done upside-down and repeated to mean, "ha, ha, ha" sarcastic)
HC (handicapped or homecoming)
HC (handicapped)
HH (hard of hearing)
HS (high school)
IBM (International Business Machines)
ICU (Intensive Care Unit)
ID (identification)
IF (done either forcefully, or with a fluttering motion of the middle and ring fingers)
JOB (twists and omits the "O"
KO (knock out)
LAB (laboratory)
LB (pounds)
MA (masters degree)
MIN (minute)
Months of the year.
Mr. (Mister)
Mrs. (as in "Mrs." Jones)
MW (microwave)
NAD National Association of the Deaf
NG (no good)
NO (directional version)
NO (straightened index and middle fingers raised and lowered onto pad of thumb)
NYOB ("Not your business" -- also look for "NYB," moved forward slightly toward the other person)
NYOB ("Not your business")
OIC (humorous form of "Oh-I-see")
OK (Okay)
OR (as in this "or" that)
OT (over time)
OZ (ounces)
Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy degree)
PO (post office)
POACH (as in eggs)
PORCH (outside your front door)
PROM (as in the dance)
REC (recreation)
REF (refrigerator)
RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf)
RX (prescription)
SEC (sixty seconds in a minute)
SO (upside down version)
SOON (cheek version)
TB (too bad, forward motion)
TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf)
TELLER (person who works at a bank)
THAI (as in food)
TL (that's life and/or tough luck)
TTY (Teletype)
VEG (vegetables)
VIT (vitamin)
WHAT (often omits the "H" and the "A," moves forward and down, ends palm up)
WHEN (often omits the "H" and the "N," starts palm up, "turns over" or just moves forward and down)
WOW (tips of "W" fingers briefly drop down to touch the tips of the pinkie and thumb before resuming the "W" shape again)
YES (starts palm down with bent wrist, moves to palm forward straight wrist, sometimes moves forward, often omits the "E")AA (associate of arts degree)

WARNING:  "Jargon Alert" 

Bill Vicars writes:
According to Websters, the word "lexical" means "of or relating to words or the vocabulary of a language as distinguished from its grammar and construction."

Thus, "all" ASL signs are "lexical" in the sense that they are the words and vocabulary of American Sign Language.

When referring to fingerspelling that has taken on the characteristics of a "sign" we use the term "lexicalized fingerspelling."

I believe that we should take care to type in full (or cut and paste) the terms "lexicalized fingerspelling" and/or "lexicalized fingerspelled words" each time we want to refer to fingerspelling which has taken on the characteristics of a sign.

At this time I recommend that we not use the shorter term "lexicals" to refer to such fingerspelling (even though it seems like such a cool and convenient way to abbreviate "lexicalized fingerspelling"). 

IF time passes and the term "lexicals" starts showing up in the "literature" in reference to "lexicalized fingerspelling" then I think we could make the switch and use the shorter term.  But for now the term "lexicals" may be confusing if applied only to "lexicalized fingerspelling" since "lexicals" could refer to any "word-like" item.  For example certain facial expressions and mouth morphemes are getting to the point where they may be considered lexicals. (Arguments could be made in favor of such items as "cha" and "pah" which are starting to show up independent of the hand movements to which they have been traditionally linked.)  Note: I don't expect casual readers to understand what I mean by "cha" and/or "pah" this particular discussion is intended for professionals in the field.
-- Bill






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