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Sign Language: Fingerspelling

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Question:  What is fingerspelling?

Answer:  Fingerspelling is the process of spelling out words by using signs that correspond to the letters of the word.  An ASL user would use the American Fingerspelled Alphabet, (also called the American Manual Alphabet). There are many different manual alphabets throughout the world.

The American Fingerspelled Alphabet consists of 22 handshapes that--when held in certain positions and/or are produced with certain movements-- represent the letters of the American alphabet. 

Question:  When should you use fingerspelling?

Answer:  There are lots of times when fingerspelling is used. The most common uses are for naming people, places, movies, books, and brands. Or maybe there is a sign, but it is just as fast or faster to fingerspell the word.  For example:  C-A-R.


- Two of the fingerspelled letters trace their shape in the air:  "Z" and "J."

-  In general the palm of your hand faces 10 o'clock on the horizontal plane. Trying to force your palm to directly face the person you are signing to is uncomfortable for your wrist.  But, you also don't want to be "spelling to yourself" either.  So just hold your hand up in a comfortable position with the palm facing mostly forward and then don't worry about it.

-  "G" and "Q" use the same handshape.  The "Q" is palm down.

-  "K" and "P" use the same handshape.  The "P" is palm down. The K is palm forward.

-  "I" and "J" use the same handshape.  The "J" traces a "J" in the air.

-  "H" and "U" use the same handshape.  The "H" is horizontal. The "U" is vertical. 

-  When I do "X" I rarely tuck my thumb in. (As shown in common "pictures" of the alphabet in some books.)  I do have an example of when it is tucked in though.  There is a computer term "MMX."  If I were spelling the abbreviation "MMX" then I'd just leave the thumb in place (after doing the "M's" and it would end up "tucked in."  In general the pad of your thumb is touching the fore-knuckle of the your hand.

Levels of fingerspelling and number skill proficiency for hearing adult second language learners:

* Knows proper placement of hand
* Understands concept of simultaneous attention to lip & hand movements
* Can recognize each letter of the alphabet when signed slowly
* Can fingerspell each letter of the alphabet slowly
* Can recognize at least one variation of numbers 0 - 31
* Can sign at least one variation of numbers 0 - 31
* Knows how to form double letters
* Knows different forms of individual letters, specifically E, M,N,G,T,B,Z
* Can recognize letters fingerspelled quickly and in random order
* Can recognize variations in numbers 0 - 31
* Can recognize numbers 0 - 31 signed quickly in random order
* Understands the concept of phonetic fingerspelling
* Can phonetically fingerspell own name
* Can phonetically rehearse the ABC's
* Knows how to sign billion, trillion, & variations of 100 & 1000
* Can recognize letters in a two handed speed drill (simultaneous presentation)
* Can recognize numbers in a two handed speed drill
* Can sign numbers 0 - 1,000,000
* Can recognize 3 letter words
* Can relay 3 letter words
* Can play Bingo in ASL with little difficulty
* Can phonetically fingerspell 3 letter words
* Can recognize 4 and 5 letter words
* Can phonetically fingerspell 4 and 5 letter words
* Knows how to sign and recognize a decimal point
* Knows how to recognize and sign fractions
* Knows how to count dollars up to 9
* Knows how to sign cardinal and ordinal numbers
* Knows how to sign phone numbers, addresses, and extremely long numbers
* Knows how to keep score
* Can recognize long words spelled at a moderate pace
* Can recognize regionally common words fingerspelled very quickly
* Can recognize long words fingerspelled quickly

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

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

Oh, one more thing. His sign for the word "from" was different than the one demonstrated in all of my sources.
Instead of holding the left index finger up and pulling at the tip with the right index finger, he instead pointed the left index finer pointing to the right, and lightly touched it with the right index finger and pulled it away. It threw me until he explained it as the word "from". Have you seen this used in Texas? (BTW, I lived in Abilene for 10 years. Directed the Hardin-Simmons Cowboy Band while there.)

Thanks for any insight you can provide.



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 "right" 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 totally vertical, you are working too hard. If your wrist is bent, you are asking for carpal tunnel.  Just bend the arm at the elbow and point your palm at a comfortable 340 degree angle.

I hardly bend my wrist while spelling. The difference between my P and my K is very minor.  Fingerspelled letters rarely occur in isolation so it is simply not an issue. I bend my wrist a small bit forward on p and q so that my palm is somewhat more 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.

As an instructor I go out of my way to do my signs in a very clear manner so my students can learn from me easily.  Thus I tended to make a big, obvious "j" movement.  It took me forever to get out of the habit of showing my students a "J" with a big twist of my wrist and instead just show them how I do a "j' in everyday conversation (without movement in my wrist and instead rotate my forearm - as if screwing in a light bulb).

When doing "c, d, and k" my palm points at the 10 o'clock on the sundial.  (Just like all my other letters.)

You also asked about the sign "from."  This is one of those signs where books and ASL teachers show one thing and real language users do something else.  See the forward slash on your keyboard that looks like this:  / 
Your left forearm and index finger are at about that angle.  Neither vertical or horizontal but somewhere in between.  Again note that it is much more physically comfortable to have it at an angle.  I'd have it more up than sideways though.

Well that's about it for now.  If you have other questions let me know.

Take care,




Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

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