American Sign Language

The Problem of Writing

If you’re already familiar with ASL and the various difficulties of using it in today’s modern text-driven world, please bear with me a moment. The first question many people outside of the Deaf community seem to ask on the subject of writing in ASL is, “Wait… huh? You just use English, right?” Well…

Imagine growing up speaking one language with your family and friends but having to learn a second language to get by in school. Now imagine being unable to hear this second language and learning it only through reading and writing. And now imagine having no way to read or write in your native language. Sucks, right?

You’d have to rely on your second language for such routine tasks as taking notes in class, writing yourself a to-do list, or texting a friend—even if that friend speaks your native language!

This is the situation faced by many native speakers of ASL growing up in the English-speaking world. The formidable task of learning to read is made infinitely more difficult because the learner is not already familiar with the spoken language. It would be like trying to learn Arabic without ever hearing a word of it spoken.

Contrary to many naive assumptions, “sign language” is not just a complicated system of gestures and pantomime. It’s not universal, and American Sign Language is not somehow derived from English. ASL is a language in its own right, and its usage does not always correspond to where English is spoken. Given this basic understanding of how sign works, it should be clear that written English is not the same thing as written ASL.

The writing system laid out here could be adapted for any signed language, but it was specifically designed for ASL (sort of like how the Roman alphabet works for English even though it was designed for Latin). It was designed to solve a couple of related problems: how to record ASL production and how to store and process it in a computer-friendly way. Recording video captures the language in detail, but it’s not always convenient, and video doesn’t lend itself well to technology like search engines, email, and text messaging.


How to Spell a Sign

  1. Components of a Sign
  2. Primary Handshape
  3. Secondary Handshape
  4. Orientation
  5. Location
  6. Movement Direction
  7. Movement Type
  8. Compounds and Fingerspelling

By its very nature, writing is an imprecise approximation of language, be it spoken or signed. All the complex variation in tone that’s possible in spoken language is lost as soon as it’s written down, to say nothing of facial expression, gestures, body language, etc. If we want a writing system that’s going to be practical to use, we have to accept that it will never carry the same level of detail as the spoken/signed language. Written language can be read in different ways depending on context and (importantly) punctuation. Putting this limitation aside for now, let’s learn to spell in ASL!

What we’re looking for here is essentially a romanization scheme for ASL. Just as languages like Japanese and Russian can be written using the Roman alphabet, so can ASL. There just has to be a standard method of connecting the letters with how the words are articulated (whether vocally or manually). This system—which we’ll call Romanized ASL, or RASL for short— is certainly not the only method ever devised for writing in ASL, but it aims to be the most convenient.


Components of a Sign

A sign in ASL (or any other signed language) can be broken down into a few distinct components that convey its meaning: handshape, orientation, location, movement, and non-manual signals such as facial expression. While non-manual signals are important, RASL treats them a bit like intonation in English, leaving it to the reader to make use of punctuation and context. The four remaining components (in the order given here) determine the spelling of each sign.

For example, the ASL word vranu means something like “sell”. The beginning “v” indicates that both hands are making a flat O shape (O). That’s the handshape component. Next is an “r”, which means that the palms are facing down. That covers orientation. The main vowel, “a”, indicates that the sign is located in the neutral signing space, the open area in front in the signer’s chest and face. The “n” indicates movement away from the signer. Finally, the “u” indicates a curving or twisting motion. Putting it all together, a user of RASL can read the word vranu, “sound it out” manually as just described, and be understood by a user of ASL.


Primary Handshape

The “primary” handshape is the one used by the dominant hand at the start of a sign. RASL does not record all the possible handshape distinctions made by ASL, but with a total of 36, it comes pretty close. The following table shows how to spell the various handshapes.

t/s d/z p/f b/v k/x g/j
i 1 u i d Y PD
e rR v y f I7 8
u xX VUW s TF e SEQ
o t nN m o CM w
gGL kK a O b 4
a l 3H A c B 5

For a given handshape, begin with the vowel of its row (if there is one), and follow up with the first consonant of its column (“t”, “d”, “p”, “b”, “k”, or “g”). These sounds are called stops because they are pronounced with a short stoppage of airflow.

If the sign is made with two hands, both making the same shape, use the column’s second consonant instead (“s”, “z”, “f”, “v”, “x”, or “j”). These letters are used to represent fricatives, sounds made with continuous airflow. The letters “x” and “j” represent the middle sounds in “machine” and “measure”, respectively. (These are often spelled “sh” and “zh” in other romanization schemes.)

This arrangement is not arbitrary; it makes use of sound symbolism, a natural correspondence between handshapes and speech sounds. The basic pattern is as follows:

  • i, t/s = pointing
  • e, d/z = split
  • u, p/f = curled
  • o, b/v = grabbing
  • (no vowel), k/x = flat
  • a, g/j = open

Using this terminology, The 1 handshape (1) is “pointing”, V (v) is “split”, S (s) is “curled”, O (o) is “grabbing”, B (b) is “flat”, and 5 (5) is “open”. So the R handshape (r) could be described as a “split point” (spelled “et”), the U handshape (u) could be described as a “pointing split” (spelled “id”), and so on.


Secondary Handshape

For two-handed signs where the non-dominant hand does not use the primary handshape, a secondary handshape must be specified. In this situation, however, only a limited repertoire of handshapes are used. The following table shows a bit more flexibility than the first one, which reflects the reduced importance of the secondary hand in ASL.

s z f v x j
i 1
e v
u s
o oO CM
a lgGL Aa c Bb 54

Many ASL signs (especially name signs) use the handshape of a fingerspelled letter or number to connect the sign with an English equivalent. If this is considered important, a capital letter or number can be used in place of the primary handshape, followed by a hyphen. This does not affect the representation of a secondary handshape, except in the case where both hands match. In this situation, an “h” should follow the hyphen to indicate that the secondary hand is in use, but its shape is no different from that of the primary hand.

For example, the word eswahu translates to “room” (though axwahu is more common). The beginning “es” indicates that both hands are making an R shape (r). An alternate way to write this word would be “R-hwahu”. The one-handed sign etrah (“right”) would simply be “R-rah”, without an added “h”. The two-handed etaxeru (“rule”) would be “R-axeru”. Of course, these are only alternative spellings. Such substitutions are normally unnecessary.


Orientation

This is the direction that the palm of the primary hand is facing at the start of the sign. By default, it is assumed to be facing the opposite side, so no extra letter is needed to indicate this. The following letters should be pronounced with their normal English values (“light”, “red”, “yellow”, and “water”), but it’s perfectly fine to add in an extra syllable if that helps. (Vranu would sound more like “vuh-rah-noo” or “ver-rah-noo”.)

  • (default) = palm sideways
  • l = palm facing up
  • r = palm facing down
  • y = palm outward, away from signer
  • w = palm inward, toward signer

To aid in committing these associations to memory, it may be helpful to learn how they were chosen. “L” and “r” are very similar sounds (known as liquids), but “l” is more light and elegant, and “r” is rougher and heavier. Therefore, “l” points up, and “r” points down. (A lowercase “l” is also taller than “r”, so there’s that too.) “Y” and “w” (known as semivowels) can be associated with the words you (pointing forward to the observer) and we (pointing back to the signer). Also, the Mandarin word for “me” is wǒ, so that strengthens the “w” sound’s association with the first person.


Location

The signing space is divided very roughly into five categories. “Neutral space” is distinguished from the “secondary hand” in many two-handed signs only by whether the secondary hand seems to be more mirroring the primary hand or serving passively as the location of the primary hand’s movement. In all cases, the vowels should be pronounced pretty much as they are in Spanish (“father”, “there”, “machine”, “store”, and “rude”).

  • a = neutral signing space
  • e = secondary hand, forearm, elbow
  • o = chest, torso, shoulder, upper arm, thigh
  • i = brow, eyes, nose, head, temple
  • u = mouth, chin, cheek, jaw, neck

“I” and “u” are the high vowels (made with the tongue highest in the mouth), so they are associated with the head. Since “u” is pronounced with rounded lips, it is associated with the mouth area. The mid vowels “e” and “o” are articulated a little lower in the signing space. Since “e” is a front vowel (pronounced with the tongue pushed forward in the mouth), it represents the hand/forearm location farther from the signer. The back vowel “o” represents the chest/torso location closer to the signer. “A” is the most open vowel, so it represents the signing space farthest away from the body.


Movement Direction

This one is tricky because many signs include movement in more than one direction. This is meant to indicate the overall direction that the primary hand moves, but if the primary hand returns to its original position, it may indicate only the starting direction. The default direction indicator is “h”, which may indicate horizontal movement or no movement at all. Similarly, it may be pronounced as it is in English, or it may be silent.

  • h = horizontal, stationary
  • l = up
  • r = down
  • n = outward, away from signer
  • m = inward, toward signer

“H” is easy enough to remember as an indicator of horizontal movement. As with orientation, “l” and “r” are again associated with up and down. “N” and “m” (known as nasals) replace the semivowels “y” and “w” in this context. “M” can be associated with the word me easily enough. If you need an association for “n”, the Mandarin word for “you” is nǐ.


Movement Type

This component is somewhat open to interpretation. A few similar movement types are considered equivalent purely for convenience. In general, “a” indicates repetition, “i” indicates sharp movement, and “u” indicates rounded movement. “E” and “o” are similar to “i” and “u”, but they involve repetition. If it helps, you can imagine that they are spelled “ai” and “au”, respectively.

  • (default) = straight, stationary
  • a = repeated, alternating
  • i = hand movement, change in handshape
  • e = shaken, wiggled, angled, wavy, repeated hand movement
  • u = curved, twisting
  • o = circular, looping, repeated twisting

Compounds and Fingerspelling

If two signs are produced as a unit, perhaps with some detail left out of one or both of the signs, they should be connected in writing using a hyphen. A common example of this is the suffix -xar, meaning “person” or “agent”. In its full form, “person” may be expressed as zrar, with hands in the P shape (k), but as part of a compound, flat hands (b) are used. For most compounds, no spelling adjustment is necessary, but this is a common exception.

Some signs seem to be composed of two distinct movements in sequence. For example, the sign for “deaf” (one of them, at least) involves tapping an index finger near the ear and then tapping near the mouth. Such signs may be written as hyphenated compounds to better represent their articulation. For “deaf”, this would be “itih-itum”. However, since the handshape component (“it”) is repeated exactly, it can be omitted from the second part of the sign, leaving us with itih-um.

Fingerspelled words can be thought of as compounds, with each letter being potentially an individual word, but in this case, no hyphens are necessary. Simply write the fingerspelled word using all capital letters. So the ASL word for “ASL” is (you guessed it) ASL.


What Now?

Check out the dictionary over at ASLdict.com. It still needs a lot of work, but you can see where I’m going with it. If you’d like to offer assistance, corrections, or criticism, contact me via your social network of choice.