Fingerspelling (or dactylology) is the representation of the letters of a writing system, and sometimes numeral systems, using only the hands. These manual alphabets (also known as finger alphabets or hand alphabets), have often been used in deaf education, and have subsequently been adopted as a distinct part of a number of sign languages around the world. Historically, manual alphabets have had a number of additional applications — including use as ciphers, as mnemonics, and in silent religious settings.
Related manual systems phonetically represent sound, rather than the written form of a spoken language. Such "Mouth Hand Systems" (MHS) may use hand movements alongside mouth patterns to distinguish the individual sounds or phonemes. The most prominent such system is known as cued speech. Others include a Mouth Hand System developed in Denmark in 1903 by Georg Forchhammer, an "Assisted Kinemes Alphabet" from Belgium, and an Iranian system developed in 1935 by Jabar Baghcheban.
There are two families of manual alphabets used for representing the Latin alphabet in the modern world. The more common of the two is mostly produced on one hand, and can be traced back to alphabetic signs used in Europe from at least the early 15th century. The alphabet, first described completely by Spanish monks, was adopted by the Abbé de l'Épée's deaf school in Paris in the 18th century, and was then spread to deaf communities around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries via educators who had learnt it there. Over time, variations have emerged, brought about by natural phonetic changes that occur over time, adaptions for local written forms with special characters or diacritics (which are sometimes represented with the other hand), and avoidance of handshapes that are considered obscene in some cultures. Modern descendants include the American manual alphabet and the International manual alphabet.
Letters are formed by a dominant hand, which is on top of or alongside the other hand at the point of contact, and a subordinate hand, which uses either the same or a simpler handshape to the dominant hand. Either the left or right hand can be dominant. In a modified tactile form used by deafblind people, the signer's hand acts as the dominant hand and the receiver's hand becomes the subordinate hand.
Some signs, such as the sign commonly used for the letter C, may be one-handed.
Fingerspelling is used in different sign languages and registers for different purposes. It may used be to represent words from a spoken language which have no sign equivalent, or for emphasis, clarification, or when teaching or learning a sign language.
In American Sign Language (ASL), more lexical items are fingerspelled in casual conversation than in formal or narrative signing. Different sign language "speech communities" use fingerspelling to a greater or lesser degree. At the high end of the scale, fingerspelling makes up about 8.7% of casual signing in ASL, and 10% of casual signing in Auslan. The proportion is higher in older signers, suggesting that the use of fingerspelling has diminished over time. Across the Tasman Sea, only 2.5% of the corpus of New Zealand Sign Language was found to be fingerspelling. Fingerspelling has only become a part of NZSL since the 1980s; prior to that, words could be spelled or initialised by tracing letters in the air. Fingerspelling does not seem to be used much in the sign languages of Eastern Europe, except in schools, and Italian Sign Language is also said to use very little fingerspelling, and mainly for foreign words. Sign languages that make no use of fingerspelling at all include Kata Kolok and Ban Khor Sign Language.
The speed and clarity of fingerspelling also varies between different signing communities. In Italian Sign Language, fingerspelled words are relatively slow and clearly produced, whereas fingerspelling in standard British Sign Language (BSL) is often rapid so that the individual letters become difficult to distinguish, and the word is grasped from the overall hand movement. Most of the letters of the BSL alphabet are produced with two hands, but when one hand is occupied, the dominant hand may fingerspell onto an "imaginary" subordinate hand, and the word can be recognised by the movement. As with written words, the first and last letters and the length of the word are the most significant factors for recognition.
When persons fluent in sign language read fingerspelling, they do not usually look at the signer's hand(s), but maintain eye contact and look at the face of the signer as is normal for sign language. People who are learning fingerspelling often find it impossible to understand it using just their peripheral vision and must look directly at the hand of someone who is fingerspelling. Often, they must also ask the signer to fingerspell slowly. It frequently takes years of expressive and receptive practice to become skilled with fingerspelling.
Some writers have suggested that the body and hands were used to represent alphabets in Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Assyrian antiquity. Certainly, "finger calculus" systems were widespread, and capable of representing numbers up to 10,000; they are still in use today in parts of the Middle East. The practice of substituting letters for numbers and vice versa, known as gematria, was also common, and it is possible that the two practices were combined to produce a finger calculus alphabet. The earliest known manual alphabet, described by the Benedictine monk Bede in 8th century Northumbria, did just that. While the usual purpose of the Latin and Greek finger alphabets described by Bede is unknown, they were unlikely to have been used by deaf people for communication — even though Bede lost his own hearing later in life. Historian Lois Bragg concludes that these alphabets were "only a bookish game.
Beginning with R. A. S. Macalister in 1938, several writers have speculated that the 5th century Irish Ogham script, with its quinary alphabet system, was derived from a finger alphabet that predates even Bede.
European monks from at least the time of Bede have made use of forms of manual communication, including alphabetic gestures, for a number of reasons: communication among the monastery while observing vows of silence, administering to the ill, and as mnemonic devices. They also may have been used as ciphers for discreet or secret communication. Clear antecedents of many of the manual alphabets in use today can be seen from the 16th century in books published by friars in Spain and Italy. From the same time, monks such as the Benedictine Fray Pedro Ponce de León began tutoring deaf children of wealthy patrons — in some places, literacy was a requirement for legal recognition as an heir — and the manual alphabets found a new purpose. They were originally part of the earliest known Mouth Hand Systems. The first book on deaf education, published in 1620 in Madrid, included a detailed account of the use of a manual alphabet to teach deaf students to read and speak.
Meanwhile in Britain, manual alphabets were also in use for a number of purposes, such as secret communication, public speaking, or used for communication by deaf people. In 1648, John Bulwer described "Master Babington", a deaf man proficient in the use of a manual alphabet, "contryved on the joynts of his fingers", whose wife could converse with him easily, even in the dark through the use of tactile signing. In 1680, George Dalgarno published Didascalocophus, or, The deaf and dumb mans tutor, in which he presented his own method of deaf education, including an "arthrological" alphabet, where letters are indicated by pointing to different joints of the fingers and palm of the left hand. Arthrological systems had been in use by hearing people for some time; some have speculated that they can be traced to early Ogham manual alphabets. The vowels of this alphabet have survived in the contemporary alphabets used in British Sign Language, Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language. The earliest known printed pictures of consonants of the modern two-handed alphabet appeared in 1698 with Digiti Lingua, a pamphlet by an anonymous author who was himself unable to speak. He suggested that the manual alphabet could also be used by mutes, for silence and secrecy, or purely for entertainment. Nine of its letters can be traced to earlier alphabets, and 17 letters of the modern two-handed alphabet can be found among the two sets of 26 handshapes depicted.
Charles de La Fin published a book in 1692 describing an alphabetic system where pointing to a body part represented the first letter of the part (eg. Brow=B), and vowels were located on the fingertips as with the other British systems. He described codes for both English and Latin.
By 1720, the British manual alphabet had found more or less its present form. Descendants of this alphabet have been used by deaf communities (or at least in classrooms) in former British colonies India, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda and South Africa, as well as the republics and provinces of the former Yugoslavia, Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, Indonesia, Norway, Germany and the USA.