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How many handshapes are in the American Sign Language (ASL) Manual Alphabet?

Many years ago when I first started teaching ASL -- the standard answer to the question of how many handshapes were used in the fingerspelled ABC's was 22. The idea was that the 26 letters of the alphabet were represented by just 22 handshapes (with duplicates for I / J, G / Q, K/P, H/U).

These days that seems really silly to anyone who has actually studied fingerspelling at the frame by frame level. When you dissect hundreds of videos of real life fingerspelled words frame by frame you will note numerous versions of the handshapes often varying depending on the shapes of the nearby letters.
(Co-articulatory effects.)

Often when a teacher (or a "teacher" -- visualize air quotes) tells you "this is the right way" to sign something -- what they are actually showing you "the citation" version, a dictionary version, the version their teacher taught them, or what they would show an "ASL 1" class -- but not necessarily what shows up on Deaf hands in real conversation.

If your fingerspelling reaches a level where your fingers start exhibiting transitory variations and some well-meaning person corrects you I recommend you just "thank you" -- (and then move on with your life). The better you get and more you know -- the more often certain people (who consider themselves to be authorities) will correct you when you don't need correcting but rather you are using a version that the other person is unfamiliar with.

Instead of letting your ego get hurt I suggest you simply think of it as, "Okay, now I have one more vote for this other way" -- and then put that sign on your radar so you can gather more and more votes to help you decide if you really do need to change your signing in some way.

There is an old joke in the interpreting world:
How many terps does it take to change a light bulb?
One to change the bulb and two to stand there and comment on how they would have done it differently.


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