American Sign Language/Fingerspelling 1

The American Manual Alphabet is a manual alphabet that augments the vocabulary of American Sign Language when spelling a word for which there is no sign. Beginners often make the mistake of fingerspelling any word for which they do not know the sign - this is incorrect. If you do not know the sign, talk about the subject instead of simply spelling the English word. Use fingerspelling only when it is the preferred or only option, such as with proper names, the titles of works, or certain technical vocabulary. Places normally have their own sign, as do most technologies.


ASL includes both fingerspelling borrowings from English, as well as the incorporation of alphabetic letters from English words into ASL signs to distinguish related meanings of what would otherwise be covered by a single sign in ASL. For example, two hands trace a circle to mean 'a group of people'. Several kinds of groups can be specified by handshape: When made with C hands, the sign means 'class'; when made with F hands, it means 'family'. Such signs are often referred to as initialized signs because they substitute the first initial an English word as the handshape in order to provide a more specific meaning.

When using alphabetic letters in these ways, several otherwise non-phonemic handshapes become distinctive. For example, outside fingerspelling there is but a single fist handshape, with the placement of the thumb irrelevant, but within fingerspelling the position of the thumb on the fist distinguishes the letters A, S, and T. Letter-incorporated signs which rely on such minor distinctions tend not to be stable in the long run, but they may eventually create new distinctions in the language. For example, due to signs such as 'elevator', which generally requires the E handshape, some argue that E has become phonemically distinct from the 5/claw handshape.

Fingerspelling has also given way to a class of signs known as "loan signs" or "borrowed signs." Sometimes defined as lexicalized fingerspelling, loan signs are somewhat frequent and represent an English word which has, over time, developed a unique movement and shape. Sometimes loan signs are not even recognized as such because they are so frequently used and their movement has become so specialized. Loan signs are sometimes used for emphasis (like the loan sign #YES substituted for the sign YES), but sometimes represent the only form of the sign (e.g., #NO). Probably the most commonly used example of a loan sign is the sign for NO. In this sign, the first two fingers are fused, held out straight, and then tapped against the thumb in a repeated motion. When broken down, it can be seen that this movement is an abbreviated way of fingerspelling N-O-N-O. Loan signs are usually glossed as the English word in all capital letters preceded by the pound sign(#).Other commonly known loan signs include #CAR, #JOB, #BACK, #YES, and #EARLY.



Good formEdit

Letters should be signed with the dominant hand and in most cases, with palm facing the viewer. The hand should either remain in place while fingerspelling, or more often, drift slightly away from the midline in the manner of text being written out in the air; although, this is a subtle movement and should not be exaggerated. Do not bounce your hand as you spell each letter.

Additionally, when fingerspelling the hand must not bounce between letters. An exception is the case of double letters as with the word carry in which the double R can be shown by slightly bouncing the corresponding handshape, or by dragging it, slightly, to the side. Either method is a correct way to show double letters. However, people who bounce between every letter produce fingerspelling that is very hard to read, especially for experienced signers who are used to proper fingerspelling. Those who cannot overcome the habit of bouncing every letter may find it helpful to hold the wrist or forearm of the dominant hand with the free hand so that they are forced to keep the hand from moving up and down while fingerspelling. Usually, only a few hours or days of this is enough to break the habit of unnecessary bouncing while fingerspelling.

If fingerspelling multiple words, there should be a very brief pause between terms so as to signify the beginning and ending of individual words.

Long nails or excessive jewelry can be distracting when watching fingerspelling and for this reason people who regularly use sign language usually avoid them.

When fingerspelling acronyms in American Sign Language, such as with FBI, NASA, or RID, the letters are often moved in a small circle to emphasize that they should not be read together as a word.

Common mistakesEdit

Many mistakes made by beginning fingerspellers are directly attributable to how the manual alphabet is most often shown in graphics.


In most drawings or illustrations of the American Manual Alphabet, some of the letters are depicted from the side to better illustrate the desired handshape; however in practice, the hand should not be turned to the side when producing the letter. The letters C and O are two that are often mistakenly turned to the side by beginners who become used to seeing them from the side in illustrations. This means the viewer will not see the hole in your O - that is how it's supposed to be.

Important exceptions to the rule that the palm should always be facing the viewer are the letters G and H. These two letters should be made, not with the palm facing the viewer or the speaker, but with the palm facing sideways with the hand in an ergonomically neutral position.


Another mistake made by people faithfully following the pictures in most illustrations of the ASL fingerspelling alphabet is the signing of the cardinal numbers 1 - 5 with the palm facing out. The cardinal numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 should be signed palm in (towards the signer). This is in contrast with the cardinal numbers 6 - 9 which should be produced with the palm turned to face the person being addressed.

As with the letter O, the zero should not be turned to the side, but shown palm facing forward.

This applies only to the cardinal numbers however. Using numbers in other situations, such as with for showing the digits of the time for example, has different rules. When signing the time, the numbers are always facing the person being addressed, even the numbers one through five. Other signing situations involving numbers have their own norms that must be learned on a case-by-case basis.

Rhythm, speed & movementEdit

When fingerspelling, your hand should be at shoulder height, and should not "bounce" with each letter. Your hand should stay in one place and only the handshape changes (and orientation for some letters). If you have trouble doing this, you might want to hold your forearm with your non-dominant hand in order to force your spelling hand to stay still. "Bouncing" the letters makes your fingerspelling very difficult to read, even for native signers.

As well, clear handshapes are much easier to read than fast fingerspelling. Do not concentrate on speed, as fast fingerspelling with poorly formed handshapes will be difficult to read. Try to fingerspell the whole word at the same speed, not speeding up or slowing down. A pause indicates the beginning of a new word, so if you suddenly slow down because a letter combination is difficult, your reader may think you are starting a new word, leading to misunderstanding. An exception to this sometimes appears at the beginning of a word. The first letter may be held for the length of a letter extra as a cue that the signer is about to start fingerspelling.

External linksEdit