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Indexed Fingerspelling: Why do people sometimes use their non-dominant hand to point to the dominant hand while spelling?
Question: A student writes: I've noticed that signers sometimes use their non-dominant hand to point to the base of their dominant hand while fingerspelling a word. Is there a particular time when it is proper to do that?
Pointing to the wrist or base of their fingerspelling hand has a number of benefits including but not limited to:
1. emphasis: Pointing to your fingerspelling is a way to indicate to your audience that the word you are going to spell is worth paying attention to for some reason. The reason could be that the signer personally feels the concept is important and worth emphasis, the spelling is easily confused with some other spelling, the audience may need to know the precise spelling of the word later on (rather than a general approximation or lexicalization), previous audiences may have misunderstood the word, the current audience may seem to have misunderstood the word earlier in the conversation, or the audience may be a word which the signer is fairly sure is new to the audience and thus worthy of a bit more attention upon first exposure.
2. focus: The act of pointing to your fingerspelling is a way to draw focus to your hand. This can serve as a time saving feature if the signer believes that there is a substantive chance that the audience will miss the word if perceived peripherally and thus require repetition. Perhaps the fingerspelling is being use to show a misspelled word or changes to individual letter shapes. Perhaps the fingerspelled word is an uncommon name. In order to avoid needing to repeat the fingerspelling the signer may choose to point to the fingerspelling to cause the viewer to literally look at the hand (instead of the signer's face) and thus be able to more clearly see the exact letters being used.
3. stabilization: If a person is nervous or feeling shaky they may wish to stabilize their fingerspelling hand.
4. latency: Sometimes a person starts to spell a word and their brain needs a bit of time to recall the specific letters in the word. Bringing up the non-dominant hand can supply an extra bit of time for the brain to start sending the letters down the arm. This can serve as a conversational place holder to indicate that you are not ceding your turn but rather you will soon be spelling a word.
5. Reference: It is common in ASL to refer to things (or people) by pointing at them and/or pointing to direction a thing is at, or to a location were the thing was. This applies to fingerspelling as well. A person can spell something and hold on the last letter and then point to the last letter and then make a comment about what has been spelled. In this case the pointing can be used to mean things such as: this is, it was, specifically, etc.
6. Contrast: A person can spell something on each hand and point to their left or right at the location of the fingerspelling as a form of absent referent used to contrast and compare two items (or people) that have been spelled recently.
There may be other reasons but those are the ones that come to mind. As far as a "rule" for when it is proper to use non-dominant-hand-indexed fingerspelling the rule is that if you need or want to do any of the above then go ahead and index your fingerspelling with your non-dominant hand.
- Dr. Bill
Example of non-dominant hand indexed fingerspelling:
1. Beginners, to steady the arm and remind themselves not to drift or bounce.
5. A habit.
6. To indicate the specific meaning I intend for a sign with several meanings.
FARM fs(IX)RURAL HEALTH CARE
Next time I sign FARM in this context, it again means RURAL.
Keyword search terms: nondominant hand pointer finger, pointing to the fingerspelling hand with the weak hand, using the non-dominant 1-hand to emphasize fingerspelling on the dominant hand, pointing to the base of your hand while you spell, etc.
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