Manual Alphabets – How to Spell in Midair


Sign languages – sometimes called “Visuo-Spatial” languages – have always enchanted me. I’ve done a few posts on British Sign Language (BSL) before, but this post also focusses on sign languages from around the world, including the what, why, and how surrounding Manual Alphabets.

You may be a fluent signer. You may have dabbled in a few handshapes. The closest you may have come to signing is frantically gesturing to someone else in a busy club. In any case, it’s good to start off with a few points about sign language (BSL in particular) to set the scene:

  • Sign languages are separate from but influenced by the spoken language they reside within (English and BSL are not the same but share certain elements)
  • Sign languages are separate from other sign languages (BSL is not the same as LSF (French Sign Language) but is related to AUSLAN Auslan* (Australian Sign Language) due to historical events)
  • The vast majority of Sign Language users will be bilingual to some extent (think about it from a UK perspective: English is EVERYWHERE, whether you’re Deaf of hearing)

It is important to note here that sign languages do not have written systems. There are methods of noting down how signs are formed next to translated equivalents (a technique called glossing), and some BSL has been codified using a symbol set in The Dictionary of British Sign Language, but this is not the same as having a specific written system for the language. Nevertheless, sign language users can exploit the written systems of the dominant languages surrounding them using manual alphabets.

In other words, spell what you see, and others can see what you spell!

In other words, spell what you see, and others can see what you spell!

In BSL, we use a two-handed manual alphabet, calling upon both hands to make certain shapes to represent letters. The diagram below – with a link to a larger version and a left-handed version here – shows the 26 handshapes (for the 26 letters) of the manual alphabet. Those with an arrow indicate a smooth movement:


Codebreaking time: can you figure out what the 5-letter word above is using this image as a guide?

There are little tricks to help you remember how to form these shapes, for instance, the vowels all appear on the left hands’ fingers. For other shapes, you might want to think of it like your left hand being the paper and your right hand being the pen.

The way that you form and flow between these shapes when spelling something out is similar to handwriting in English. If your hands flow naturally and quickly between each shape, it’s akin to cursive, but really accentuating each handshape to a rhythm would probably BE SIMILAR TO THIS! Have a look on YouTube to find some examples of people fingerspelling to see the many styles that can be used.

If you recall one of the points above, it was that sign languages and their dominant spoken counterparts are not the same, but the latter can show influence over the former. In this case, fingerspelling is frequently used to spell English words, such as names, places, and some concepts that may not have a sign counterpart. However, you cannot get away with spelling everything to communicate; imagine how silly that would sound in spoken English!

Many other sign languages, such as American Sign Language (ASL) use a one-handed manual alphabet:


One way is not inherently better than the other, just like one language is better than any other. From my viewpoint, I find the ASL manual alphabet harder not only due to some of the handshapes (such as Q) but it seems a lot harder to discriminate between some of the letters when being signed at speed (such as E, M, N and S).

This one-handed methods appears in many more sign languages around the world, such as LSF (French), LSE (Spanish), DGS (German) and even JSL (Japanese), all with very similar signs used in their manual alphabets. For all of these except JSL, they are almost identical with additional letters to account for diacritical marks such as é (acute) and ö (diaeresis). For Japanese, however…


Without getting too complicated, Japanese has a base set of characters known as kana (a syllabary, not an alphabet). Each symbol is a unique sound and so has a unique handshape to signify it. Even some of those seen in the above chart can be blended together to make more sounds and therefore more handshape combinations!

Perhaps I’ll stick to BSL for a while longer before tackling that!

Do you use a sign language? Does your manual alphabet look similar to what has been described here, or is it totally different? Comment below and let me know =]


*Thanks to Adam for informing me of the change from AUSLAN to Auslan!


4 thoughts on “Manual Alphabets – How to Spell in Midair

  1. I’ve recently been in contact with people who learnt Italian Sign Language (LIS) and they were so happy about their work in schools and other public places that I wanted to learn this beautiful language too!

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