Basics of the Sign Language Alphabet

One of the most curious things to observe - for those who can hear at least - are two people communicating in sign language. Naturally we wonder what they are saying and if the words they use are like those used when spoken. Most often, we wonder whether they are talking about those people who do not need to communicate with sign language. And at some stage, if you think about it long enough, you wonder if there is a formal sign language alphabet or is it something that individuals just make up as they go along. And to answer your question: quite simply, there is. But where does it come from? Are there certain rules that apply when using it? Let’s take a look at some answers.

The Sign Language Alphabet

Sign language is not a modern phenomenon. Ever since the dawn of time, when man learned to communicate using gestures, sign language has been present. Even in the Stone Age members of a particular group or ‘society’ were employed to act as interpreters between those who could hear, and those who couldn’t.

Having said that, the Abbe de l’Epee would have to be credited with one of the first organised forms of manual communication. His system was similar to Signed Exact English, which strives to incorporate exact grammar and vocabulary in sign language.

Keep in mind that it is stated that the Abbe de l’Epee’s system was one of the first organised forms. There were in fact two known variations of sign language doing the rounds at the time. The one was the manual system which, according to sources, was predominantly used in the classroom while the other, also known as the “true” system, was used outside.

The Rules

Just like with any spoken language, there are definitely a number of rules that apply when using sign language. The most commonly cited rule, especially for beginners, is that the palm should always be facing the viewer. Only two exceptions exist in this case, and that is with the letters ‘G’ and ‘H’. In this case the palm should be facing sideways.

The above mentioned rules generally only apply to letters. When it comes to numbers, it changes a little bit: For the first five numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) the palm should be facing the signer. The remaining numbers (6, 7, 8, 9, 0) should be signed with the palming facing the viewer.

Movement & Speed

And on a final note, for those learning the art of sign language, some of the important remaining basics deal with the speed and movement with which the communication takes place.

A rule of thumb in terms of movement is to keep the hand at shoulder height and steady at that as anything else becomes difficult to read, even those who grew up with sign language. This is perhaps the most common of beginner mistakes. Additionally, trying to sign to fast will only cause the letters to be displayed or formed poorly, which will result in delays as well as mistakes being made. A steady, even pace, will do just the trick.

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