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Introduction to Fingerspelling

Key Features

FingerSpelling is also known as the manual alphabet. Some of its main features are listed below:

  • represents letters of the alphabet
  • relies on knowledge of the spoken/written word
  • is an important and integrated part of BSL
  • forms words as patterns
  • some small words are often spelt and are recognised as 'signs' eg 'DAY', 'STAFF'
  • can be used for abbreviated forms of words eg 'BHM' BIRMINGHAM
  • repeated initials can become signs eg 'MM' MOTHER, 'KK' KITCHEN
  • is used for acronyms eg 'NVQ', 'GCSE', 'BBC', 'NHS' and 'BSL'
  • can be integrated into a sign eg COMMUNICATION
  • can be quickly learned but needs lots of practice to recognise words as patterns
  • useful for names and places
  • used more in some parts of the country than others
  • used more by older Deaf people
  • can provide deaf children with a link to literacy
  • BSL uses a two-handed fingerspelling alphabet
  • Australian Sign Language (Auslan) uses a two-handed alphabet
  • some sign languages use one-handed alphabets, eg Irish Sign Language, American Sign Language

Fingerspelling provides a direct representation of the letters of the English alphabet.

The individual letters in the alphabet shown in the illustrations can be compared with the written form of individual letters taught at primary school level. Just as written letters change considerably when written fluently by hand, so fingerpelt letters alter considerably in fluent use. A similar ability to recognise words as 'patterns' also occurs in the fluent use of fingerpelling, as it does in the reading of written words.

The use of fingerspelling within BSL varies considerably from individual to individual, depending on age, educational background, geographical area, knowledge of English, or personal preference. Older people and people in parts of northern England and Scotland, tend to use a large proportion of fingerspelt words in all contexts, than younger people and those in the South.

Fingerspelling can be used to spell out words in full, or to provide an abbreviated form of words, sometimes simply the initial letter.

For some words, such abbreviated forms are so commonly used that they have become signs. In other instances, a fingerspelt formation has been incorporated into a sign.

Like all languages, BSL is constantly evolving and changing - influenced by surrounding languages, picking up and borrowing as the fancy takes, and fingerspelling provides a rich source of borrowings from English. However, since it provides a letter-for-letter representation of the written alphabet, it relies on familiarity with the English word and should be used with caution.

There are many different written alphabets and different forms of manual alphabets in existence throughout the world. Britain uses a two-handed fingerspelling system, which originated in the seventeenth century, but the majority of fingerspelling systems used by other countries are one-handed forms.

Drawings give a static image of the alphabet, but in fluent use, the shapes can merge and appear quite different, so that they are recognised as word patterns, and this requires practice. A number of regularly fingerspelt small words such as 'DAY', ' IF' and 'SON' have become accepted as 'signs'.

Fingerspelling is commonly used for names and places. Days of the week and months of the year are also often a repeated initial or abbreviated pattern, eg WEDNESDAY - 'WW', JANUARY - 'JAN', and so on.

British Finger Spelling Alphabet
American Finger Spelling Alphabet

Source: DeafSign.Com
Date Published @ DS: 13/12/2000 

In Association With:     
Approved by Schoolzone's team of independent education reviewers

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