Finger Spelling 101

What and When to Finger Spell

Finger spelling (also called the manual alphabet) is a set of hand shapes and motions that represent each letter of the alphabet. Situations where finger spelling is often used include:

  • When emphasizing a specific word such as "yes"
  • When clarifying the meaning of a sign, sometimes because many signs can be translated into more than one English word
  • When a person does not know a particular sign
  • When there is no sign for a certain word
  • For names*

*Although many people in the Deaf community have name signs, people still finger spell their names when meeting each other for the first time even if they have name signs. If a person has a name sign, he or she will then show the name sign after finger spelling his or her name. Short names such as those with four letters or less often are just finger spelled instead of the person receiving a name sign. Similarly, many proper nouns such as company names, brand names, and book and movie titles are usually finger spelled.

Outside Influence

Finger spelling is not unique to American Sign Language but can be found in other sign languages, each using a set of hand shapes and motions to represent letters of the regional spoken language. For example, while ASL has 26 letters in the finger spelling alphabet, Japanese Sign Language uses 46 letters to represent the 46 hiragana characters. Finger spelling is an example of how spoken languages, which are used by the majority of the population, influence sign languages, which are used by a linguistic minority.

In addition to finger spelling, spoken language influences sign language through loan signs. Loan words are when one language borrows a word from another language. That is, instead of translating a word from one language to another based on its meaning, the word is transliterated based on how it sounds or is spelled. For example, the Japanese word for computer is kompyuta, which is a transliteration of the English word instead of a translation of the word's meaning. In ASL, short, commonly used words often take on loan signs where the finger spelling is modified to create a sign that is no longer just finger spelling and is based on the spelling of the English word rather than a concept. In these loan signs, the movement of the finger spelling is often changed, or letters from the English word are omitted. While some of the following words have multiple signs, some of which are not loan signs, examples of loan signs in ASL include:

  • pizza
  • job
  • bus
  • no good
  • too bad
  • okay

Double Letters

In order to sign double letters when finger spelling, such as in the words "bell" or "igloo", signers usually slide letters to the side, away from the centerline of the body.

The following letters always slide when doubled: E, L, O.

While most other letters can also slide directly to the side to show double letters, often the following letters instead of sliding directly in a straight line will have an arc in their slide: A, B, C, D, F, G, H, I, K, P, Q, R, U, V, W, X, Y.

Notice that all of the letters listed above except for the letter A have fingers extended. Other than the letter A, fist letters do not typically slide when doubled but instead are signed twice or bounced, raising the fingers slightly and quickly in between forming the letter. Those fist letters are: M, N, S, T.

Unlike all the letters, J and Z include motion in addition to hand shape. Rather than sign the letter Z twice when it is doubled such as in the word "pizza", you can sign the motion for the letter Z with the 2 or V hand shape, both the index and middle fingers representing a letter Z.

Adept Finger Spelling

A typical mistake for those new students of the language to make is the bounce each letter forward when finger spelling in an attempt to emphasize each letter while spelling out a word letter for letter in their minds. Other than for double letters, It is absolutely essential that you hold the position of your hand still while finger spelling and avoid bouncing forward for each letter. One strategy to help steady the hand that signers of all levels use, even highly skilled, native signers, is to hold the forearm near the elbow with your weak hand. This not only serves the purpose of helping to hold your spelling hand still, but it also forewarns the addressee that you are about to finger spell a word. A variation on this technique is to point at the forearm near the elbow, placing the tip of the index finger of the weak hand on your forearm.

A strategy that helps many hearing signers finger spell more quickly is to sound out the word in their minds while finger spell instead of spelling it out letter for letter.

One should note that while finger spelling can be used to clarify the meanings of signs or when a person does not know a sign, as listed above, finger spelling is not always the best way to communicate. Instead, physically showing and/or using gestures is sometimes clearer than finger spelling. One reason for this is because finger spelling can be quite difficult to read at times. Even between two Deaf people conversing, it is not uncommon for the addressee to ask for a finger spelled word to be spelled again. It is also not uncommon for both Deaf and hearing people to feign understanding of a finger spelled word and give up trying to understand the finger spelled word. While that is not a good practice, if you struggle with reading finger spelling, do not despair; reading finger spelling is the most difficult part of American Sign Language.

For strategies on how to make finger spelling easier to read, see the article Conversing in ASL.

Finger Spelling ChartFinger Spelling Chart

One problem with many finger spelling charts is that they are inconsistent in their perspective of the hand shapes, most commonly showing the letters G, H, P from the signer's perspective and all the other letters from the addressee's point of view. This chart shows all the hand shapes from the perspective of the addressee.

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Further Learning

Learn the ASL finger spelling alphabet

Practice reading finger spelled words

Browse links to other sites on finger spelling


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