Fingerspelling in Different Countries

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Mon Apr 5 15:23:46 UTC 2004

SignWriting List
April 5, 2004

Stephen Slevinski wrote:
> Question... Do other sign languages use fingerspelling?  And why is 
> the German letter y so crazy with facial expression?  I've seen some 
> fast fingerspelling, and I can't image the facial expressions keeping 
> up with the hand.  And I can't imagine paying attention to the shape 
> of the mouth when the fingers are blurring along.  But then again, my 
> brain has not been conditioned from birth to interpret visual 
> information into language.  But I digress...

Dear SW List, Stephen in the US, and Stefan in Germany!
Thanks for your question, Stephen. The question itself comes from a 
person who uses ASL and lives in the US, because in other countries, 
fingerspelling is not used much at all...Each culture approaches 
fingerspelling differently...

In the US and English speaking Canada, fingerspelling blossomed into an 
important part of ASL grammar. Some fingerspelled words actually become 
signs in their own right, and most Deaf people in ASL, do not mouth 
that much - only when it is a part of the sign, but not necessarily 
mouthing English ASL fingerspelling became a way to sign 
without mouthing English words...and ASL fingerspelling is so fast that 
it would be impossible to mouth that fast anyway!

But some cultures do not use fingerspelling at all...even if they have 
a fingerspelling chart - that is irrelevant - I remember in Denmark, 
their equivalent of Cued Speech, which is called the Mouth-Hand System, 
had become signs within Danish Sign Language, but even though they have 
a Danish fingerspelling system, most Deaf people did not use it much in 
the 1970s and 1980s, while I worked in Denmark. In fact, the Danish 
Deaf people I met complained that they didn't like fingerspelling, and 
asked me how come American Deaf people use fingerspelling so much? They 
thought that was weird, and told me so! Of course time has gone by, and 
I do not know what it is like in Denmark today...

And Stefan can speak better for Germany...My understanding is that in 
the German culture, Deaf people mouth German words a great deal and 
they do not use fingerspelling that much...and Stefan has developed 
something called Mundbildschrift...which uses SignWriting facial 
expressions to show the mouthing...You can read about this on his web 

German SignWriting Web Site

So in summary, I believe ASL is the only signed language in the world 
that uses fingerspelling at such speeds...Americans are caught up with 
speed anyway, where in other countries communicating slowly and 
carefully is more important...

Val ;-)

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