How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language

By Padden, Carol A.; Gunsauls, Darline Clark | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language


Padden, Carol A., Gunsauls, Darline Clark, Sign Language Studies


This historical account of the development of the manual alphabet in ASL (and of representational systems in other sign languages) traces fingerspelling back to the monks of the seventh century, who devised a system for representing speech without needing to speak. Many years later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, their manual alphabet underwent significant adaptation as a result of the contact between the monks and the deaf children they tutored. This article describes the evolution of the manual alphabet from that time to the present day.

THE ALPHABET is so often linked to writing that we need to remember that its achievement has two parts-the written symbols found on a page and also the symbols that represent a cluster of sound units, or phonemes. Once committed to a page, language becomes visible and permanent and can be regarded on a plane apart from the intimate interaction of speakers. David Olson, among others, argues that the act of writing on a page has transformed thought about language because it suspends and turns language into a representation in space, one whose content we can study, review, and reconsider (1994).

The second feature of the alphabet-that it enables us to break down the fluidity of speech into units that we can transfer to a visible medium-is a monumental achievement. This aspect is particularly useful to certain groups of language users-religious and deaf signers, who appear to have little in common, except that both need a tool for converting speech to silent and visible forms. Additionally, the two communities have discovered that the alphabet can alternatively be represented on the body instead of on a page. In Greek and Roman antiquity there are recorded references to the use of the body and hands to represent the alphabet, presumably as a representational alternative to the use of paper.

In the seventh century Saint Bede the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk, proposed in his Ecclesiastical History (cited in Plann 1997) a system for representing the alphabet "using the fingers" for the purpose of silent communication among the religious. From the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, inhabitants within the cloistered walls of monasteries often used alphabetic gestures (as well as manual signs) to make face-to-face exchanges while preserving monastic vows of silence. Diagrams showing how to use the hands for the manual alphabet appeared in a book by a Spanish friar, Fray Melchor de Yebra (Refugium Infirmorum 1593; cited in Plann 1997), for monks to use while comforting sick and dying people whose illnesses had left them unable to speak. Writing the alphabet on paper enabled a permanent record of languages, but the page deeply altered the nature of the interaction between individuals. Manual alphabets, on the other hand, permitted intimacy, even as they presented language in alphabetic form, because they remained on the speaker's body during face-to-face exchanges.

The monks of the seventh century used a system for representing speech without needing to speak. Sign languages, as we well know, are not related to speech or spoken languages, but deaf people needed to be able to access and to represent the spoken language of their larger communities. The manual alphabets found in many sign languages have very different structural properties from sign languages though they share the same modality; such alphabets consist of a hand gesture for each letter. Sometimes these manual gestures are iconic; for example, the letter C is represented with a cupped hand, resembling the curved shape of the letter. In ASL fingerspelling, the letter Z traces the zigzag shape of the letter. However, although some alphabetic gestures are iconic, most of them are arbitrary in appearance. To construct a word, hand gestures are executed in sequence.

In sign languages, basic signs consist of one or two syllables, and morphemes are layered simultaneously as well as in short sequences within complex signs. …

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