Fingerspelling - the alphabet on your hands

The A-to-Z of fingerspelling A version of the fingerspelling alphabet used by the NDCS charity

Deaf people recently took part in a championships called Hot Fingers. It's to test speed at fingerspelling, but what is this and how does it differ from sign language?

A really quick fingerspeller can do the alphabet in five or six seconds. It's not easy to recite the alphabet quicker.

The 26 letters are done using different hand shapes and movements and locations, says Rob Skinner, organiser of the Hot Fingers competition.

"Vowels go across the top of your fingers - you tap your thumb for A and your index finger for E. For T the index finger on your right hand is placed at the lower end where your pinky finger is at the right palm at the bottom."

In the UK both hands are used, whereas most of the world uses a one-handed alphabet. As with many languages, there are variations in fingerspelling actions based on what region you're from, what your family speaks or how old you are.

BBC Two's See Hear went to Hot Fingers, the British Sign Language finger spelling competition

In competition, a standard alphabet is used. Even slight variances can cause disqualification, Skinner says. "If your little finger was slightly out of place or if you didn't tap your finger in the right way, you'd be disqualified."

Skinner is a British Sign Language interpreter who television viewers may have seen in the corner of the screen if watching the BBC News at One or Breakfast via the News Channel. He is "hearing" and is what's known as a Coda, a child of deaf adults. As a result, BSL is his first language.

The competition brings people together and offers an opportunity to discuss how they communicate.

Screengrab of Rob Skinner signing to BBC Breakfast

"People might discuss how they sign the vowels differently, some with fingers closer together, some with an open hand. Some would use more fingers connected together to sign the letter D than others, for instance. The number of fingers used in a sign can generate a whole hour's worth of discussion just about one letter."

Many have exclusively communicated by fingerspelling words on their hands over the centuries but it is time consuming and seen as featureless and boring by many deaf people.

These days in the UK it's mostly an add-on to the widely spoken BSL, and is used to help express English words that there are no signs for, like town or product names.

Find out more

Screengrab from See Hear website

See Hear is the BBC Two magazine programme for Britain's deaf community. The episode featuring fingerspelling will be broadcast on Wednesday 1 May at 09:30 and Thursday 2 May at 02:30 BST

But there's a big cultural and political difference between fingerspelling and British Sign Language.

"People think of sign being English on the hands but it's not," says Prof Benci Woll, director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London.

"Fingerspelling IS English on the hands, though. It's copying English letters in word order."

Skinner says spoken languages like English are quite abstract, whereas there are many signs in BSL where you can tell why the sign is used.

"A very basic example is the sign for cup. It's the way you would hold a cup - so you can connect the meaning with the sign easily. But when you think about the English word 'cup' it doesn't look, or taste, or feel like a cup."

He says another Coda recently told him the word "milk" is inherently milky in sign language, unlike the sound of the word in English. "The sign milk is like working away at a cow's udder," notes Skinner.

Hearing people invented fingerspelling to bring English to deaf people, whereas sign language emerged out of necessity in the community. Fingerspelling therefore enjoyed a higher reputation, was considered more genteel and was used in education.

A photograph of the opening pages of the History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell. [Image: Rare Books Collection, Monash University Library, Melbourne, Australia] An early version of fingerspelling's alphabet was included in a Daniel Defoe book

"BSL wasn't seen as a language at all," says Skinner. It was banned in many deaf classrooms, he notes, including at his brother's school. "It was just seen as mime and if used it would hinder deaf children's development to speak."

The manual alphabet, or fingerspelling, is thought by some to have been invented by monks in the 8th Century who had taken a vow of silence and needed another way of communicating. They in turn taught deaf people.

Signing facts

A person fingerspelling an "M"
  • Fingerspelling in British Sign Language (BSL) is two-handed but one-handed in American Sign Language
  • Even in Britain there are variations of the alphabet, with the British Deaf Association version commonly used
  • Earliest known images of BSL date from 1698 in the pamphlet Digiti Lingua
  • Regional and generational variations in British signing exist
  • BSL was recognised an official language in its own right in 2003
  • Signing has been seen on UK TV since 1980
  • National Deaf Children's Society runs an annual Fingerspellathon challenge to help children understand what it's like to be deaf

Others, like deaf academic Raymond Lee, say the Venerable Bede is independently responsible for the idea in a book he wrote in 725, a work primarily interested in calculating the date of Easter using fingers to help with the maths.

A pamphlet called Digiti Lingua by an anonymous author first showed illustrations of what turned into the present language in 1698. The manual alphabet was then published as an an illustration in popular author Daniel Defoe's book about a deaf man, The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell, from 1720.

Now at the Hot Fingers championships the fingerspelling is so fast it cannot be judged by the naked eye.

"It was filmed and replayed in slow motion where judges would verify each letter," says Skinner.

Common errors included missed letters or people extending the wrong number of fingers onto the palm for letters like M.

The majority of attempts at this year's competition were in the five to six seconds range. But in 2008, Thomas McWhinney set the Guinness record at 4.7 seconds, a record which hasn't been beaten.

McWhinney says his speed is not down to a finger-exercising regimen but due to being a long-practised sign language user.

"I was disqualified because I did not spell P properly before skipping to Q, which I did in my every attempt at the recent event, which is certainly unfortunate since some believe that I would have smashed my last record was I able to fingerspell Q properly."

He dismisses rumours that he can do Z to A even quicker.

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