Language & Communication12th October 2013

BSL World - fingerspelling

A regular column about issues related to British Sign Language

by Linda Day & Tessa Padden

Fingerspelling – an important part of BSL, but only part! Fingerspelling is a wonderful tool for opening up new worlds of information. Where there is not yet a sign for a new concept, or a new piece of equipment, it is essential to know how to fingerspell it. It is also invaluable for spelling new or unfamiliar names, such as those of people we have never met, or places.


At the moment, there is a trend to use Baby Signs with hearing children. (We think this is great, though we would like to see Baby Sign systems more closely based on BSL). A natural extension of this would be to use fingerspelling as well, as another way to introduce infants to English words and names. That is what fingerspelling is – a way of spelling out English words and names on the fingers. The fingerspelling letters are only that – an alphabet – and should not be confused with British Sign Language.

It is a bit like when we go on holiday to Greece. In tourist restaurants, the menu is usually printed in Greek, followed by translations into other languages, using the Latin alphabet (the one used by English and most European languages). But these are translations, not just the original Greek names for the food printed in the Latin alphabet. If it was, we still wouldn’t understand most of what we could order – and that could lead to some rather embarrassing mix-ups!

So, fingerspelling an English word doesn’t make it a sign in BSL. This is linked to a mistaken way of thinking that used to be common (and can still be found). That is, that British Sign Language is just a signed version of English. If that were the case, American Sign Language should be very similar to BSL. But in fact, for historical reasons, it is completely different, and even has a different fingerspelling alphabet!

One other important point is that most of you have probably seen fingerspelling cards, with 26 pictures of the letters in the alphabet. These may be useful as a way of showing the basic finger positions, but they are not a perfect guide to how fingerspelling is actually created, and used by people! No more than a printed alphabet is a perfect guide to how every individual writes these letters with a pen, and even less, to how they are pronounced in speech.

Like every part of the rich visual-gestural language that is BSL, you have to see how fingerspelling is used by native BSL users, in order to become fluent in understanding it and using it yourself.

On our Signworld website, we make it easy for people to learn to read and ‘write’ fingerspelling. Our Beginner Level package (£5.99) has nearly 600 names containing between 2 and 4 letters, including names, UK place names, etc. Intermediate Level (£9.99) has more than 950 names; and Advanced Level (£14.99) has nearly 1500 names, including place names, all the states of the USA and a list of British Prime Ministers!

We’ve also put some sample finger-spelling names on YouTube (Barack Obama, Mao Tse Tung, and Nelson Mandela). We have also put the forenames of the new Royal baby, George Alexander Louis, on our Facebook page -

Article by Linda Day & Tessa Padden

posted in Community / Language & Communication

12th October 2013