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In a message dated 3/31/2003 1:18:58 AM Central Standard Time, a
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
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
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
Thanks for any insight you can provide.
REPLY: Dr. Bill responds:
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
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
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 +
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
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
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.
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 ?
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.
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
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
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.
FINGERSPELLING SHORT WORDS
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.
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.
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