Professor Jill Birchall
SILA 317 ASL Linguistics
4 December 2014
Fingerspelling and Its Role in Signed Languages
Fingerspelling is the act of using a manual representation of a language’s written alphabet in order to spell a word. In American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling is most often used for identifying proper nouns, titles, and brand names. However, it also serves a purpose in applying emphasis to a sign, as well as providing clarification. Clarification may be needed for a sign that can have multiple meanings depending on the content and context of the sentence, and also in a situation where a person does not know a particular sign. This is common with people learning ASL, or even native signers who are not familiar with a certain sign’s meaning or context due to regional variation (Mulrooney 203). Fingerspelling is also used to abbreviate and initialize words and signs (examples include “A-P-T” for “apartment”, and using a “U” handshape in the sign for “COLLEGE” to signify “UNIVERSITY”). Fingerspelling is also sometimes used in combination with a sign (“HARD-W-A-R-E-STORE”). Fluent fingerspelling is rhythmic and has a fluid progression through the various handshapes. Depending on the sentence and signer, some fingerspelled signs are shown more exactly, some are blended, and some are omitted (Roos 150). Studies have shown that anywhere from 12 to 35 percent of ASL discourse is composed of fingerspelling (Padden and Gunsauls 15). Most signers using a one-handed manual alphabet fingerspell in the area in front of the shoulder of their dominant hand, typically somewhere between the chin and the ribs (Valli, Lucas, Mulrooney, and Villanueva 215). In some sign languages fingerspelling is done more in the center. For example most two-handed alphabets are signed primarily in front of the body, but may be slightly the side depending on the sign and the singer (“Sign Language Dictionary”). An important concept to understand about fingerspelling is that each representation of a letter is a sign in and of itself. Each sign is a free morpheme, and has its own meaning and purpose; it can stand alone to convey a meaningful message to the viewer (Valli, et al. 74). Different kinds of fingerspelling have been identified in ASL: rapid fingerspelling, careful fingerspelling, and lexical fingerspelling. Rapid fingerspelling is typically used when all parties in a conversation know the word, based on context or familiarity with the word, and some signs may be omitted for reasons of speed, comfort, or preference. Rapid fingerspelling is common for experienced signers in day-to-day conversations (Mulrooney 203). Careful fingerspelling is slow and deliberate, ensuring the viewer understands each sign. For example, when introducing someone a signer will use careful fingerspelling to inform others of a person’s name. If the name comes up again in discourse, it will likely be produced with rapid fingerspelling (205-206). Lexicalized fingerspelling happens when the individual units in a fingerspelled word become one sign, effectively making its own morpheme (Valli, et al. 74). Through this process, some signs may be omitted (75), the location of the sign may be altered, the handshapes used may be changed or blended, and the orientation of the palm may shift. Furthermore, a movement or directionality may be incorporated, the sign may be reduplicated, and a signer may use both hands to produce the sign. These additions incorporate grammatical information (77-79). Fingerspelling was not always considered an important aspect of ASL, as it’s often classified as a derivative of English, and therefore not an integral part of the gestural system. For this reason, fingerspelling was often disregarded in sign language research (Lucas 4). Manual alphabets are a product of language contact between spoken and signed languages. Language contact is a concept concluding that a new language or dialect is formed when two languages come together (Valli, et al. 74). This can happen with two signed languages, two spoken languages, or one of each (187). Another example of the effects of language contact between a signed language and a spoken language is lexical mouthing. In ASL, an example would be the “fsh” mouth shape often made when signing “FINISH” (192). This exemplifies how a spoken and signed language can borrow from each other while maintaining coherence. In English, lexical borrowing takes the form of words like “algebra” from Arabic language, and “squash” from American Indian languages. These words are still considered a part of English despite their foreign origins (189). Emmory and Petrich suggest that mouthing is typically done with fingerspelling to promote phonological awareness of English equivalents (194). One study reported that 78% of deaf signers accompanied fictitious words with mouthing. This suggests a strong cognitive connection between fingerspelling morphology and English phonology – perhaps an even greater connection than that between fingerspelling morphology and English orthography (201). This would be counter-intuitive to the way that deaf individuals are typically taught English in a bilingual approach. One factor could be the upbringing and language acquisition of the participants; 53% were non-native signers (199). The origin of fingerspelling is hard to pinpoint, but seems to have been prevalent in communication before its use in sign languages for the deaf. In the Middle Ages, and even as late as the seventeenth century, fingerspelling was used in monasteries by monks who were under a vow of silence. Monks used fingerspelling, and even some signs, to communicate with each other, as well as terminally ill individuals who could no longer speak. This proved more intimate and satisfying than writing back and forth to each other. Eventually, the manual alphabet came to be used for educational purposes. The first instances of this can be linked to monks tutoring deaf children in sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain (Padden and Gunsauls 11). The origin of ASL is not only easier to pinpoint, but well-known and celebrated in the Deaf community. Laurent Clerc imported French Sign Language (LSF) to the United States in 1817. While it changed over time, becoming its own language (ASL), it still retained some roots to its mother language. An interesting aspect of this, is the role of initialization (Shaw and Delaporte 158). Initialization is the use of a fingerspelling handshape that coheres to the translated written form of a sign (Baker 6). An interesting example is the sign “PLAY”. In French, the word for play is “jouer”. In LSF, “JOUER” is signed the same as ASL “PLAY”, using the initialization of “J”. The LSF handshape for “J” is near identical to the ASL “Y”, which is what is used for “PLAY”. In ASL, the sign looks like shaking “Y”s, while really, its origin is simply signing “J” with both hands (Shaw and Delaporte 194-195). Children acquire understanding of fingerspelled words in the same way they acquire written words. The practice through babbling and form more intelligible sounds and signs around age one. They produce sounds signs as they acquire the muscles to do so, be it in the mouth and voice, or hands and fingers. Sometimes there are understood clearly by others, and sometimes only the child itself understands. Some messages or communicated based on a specific aspect of the word or sign (a classic English example would be “pasketti” instead of “spaghetti”), and sometimes the message appears more adult-like (Roos 151). At 8 to 12 months of age children begin babbling to respond in conversation. At 12 to 24 months they begin forming simple hand shapes: A, B, C, O, S, 1, and 5, and can even use lexicalized fingerspelling. At 24 to 36 months they develop more fine motor skills, and can produce more complex letters: D, F, G, I, L, Q, Y, and Z. They can also understand familiar fingerspelled names, and can reciprocate some names using lexicalized fingerspelling. At 36 to 48 months they typically can produce E, H, K, M, N, P, R, T, U, V, W, X, and Y. They can also use lexicalized fingerspelling for simple words like #BUS, #NO, or #TV (Baker 5). However, when learning fingerspelled words, they don’t necessarily understand the individual handshapes; the see the whole word as one sign, and can associate its meaning correctly (2). It’s not until about 48 months or later that children fully understand that these words consist of individual handshapes, as they begin learning the how they alphabet works to form words (5). This process is virtually identical to learning process of printed and spoken English. Further research revealed that, true to how all children acquire language, emphasizing the whole word encouraged better and faster understanding of its meaning in younger children. As children age and develop, they begin to break down the words and signs to deepen understanding (Roos 152-153). There is a strong linguistic connection between fingerspelling and reading. One study of children in third through seventh grade reported that children who better recognized fingerspelled words, were also more competent in comprehensive reading (Baker 5). Carin Roos studied 6 deaf children with ages ranging from 3 years and 1 month to 6 years and 9 months as the acquired fingerspelling (Roos 156). In this study, three different types of fingerspelling were found. In “pre-fingerspelling”, a child is interested in the act of fingerspelling, though does not produce any actual letters. In “play-fingerspelling”, children practice producing the correct handshapes in a sequence, however these signs produce a nonsense word. In “invented fingerspelling”, children correctly sign some letters (typically the first and last letters) with pre-fingerspelling in between (160-161). Fingerspelling is an imperative aspect of ASL. It gives the language depth, room for infinite growth, and can even function as a fail-safe for interpreting certain concepts. Hearing children are taught their language’s manual alphabet in younger grades just to help them grasp letters better, and as a fun exercise for their hands to encourage fine motor development. Manual alphabets also serve a role in sign languages through initialization. This again can be used to expand concepts of signs to reach multiple meanings, providing a more comfortably acquired vocabulary. As signed languages continue to expand and evolve, they will always have their manual alphabets as a bridge between signed and spoken/written languages, and as a sturdy foundation for their development.
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