American manual alphabet

The American Manual Alphabet is a manual alphabet that augments the vocabulary of American Sign Language when spelling individual letters of a word is the preferred or only option, such as with proper names or the titles of works. Letters should be signed with the dominant hand and in most cases, with palm facing the viewer.


The ASL alphabet is based on French sign language and was standardized by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc for use in America.

It is also used in Germany, Austria, Norway, and Finland, again with a modification for the letter T. T is like G with the thumb placed atop the first knuckle of the index finger.

German Ä, Ö, Ü, and ß are signed like A, O, U, and S but with a downward motion, while SCH is a 5 hand (palm forward). In Norwegian and Finnish, the letters Ä, Å, Ö, Ø are derived by moving A and O (in the case of Å, in a small window-washing circular motion), and it is the Æ that gets the 5 hand (perhaps somewhat flexed).

Good form

The hand should either remain in place while fingerspelling, or more often, drift slightly away from the midline in the manner of text being written out in the air; although, this is a subtle movement and should not be exaggerated.

If fingerspelling multiple words or entire sentences, there should be a very brief pause between terms so as to signify the beginning and ending of individual words.

Long nails or excessive jewelry can be distracting when watching fingerspelling and for this reason people who regularly use sign language usually avoid them.

When fingerspelling acronyms in American Sign Language, such as with FBI, NASA, or RID, the letters are often moved in a small circle to emphasize that they should not be read together as a word.

Additionally, when fingerspelling the hand should not bounce between letters. An exception is the case of double letters as with the word carry in which the double R can be shown by slightly bouncing the corresponding handshape, or by dragging it, slightly, to the side. Either method is a correct way to show double letters. However, people who bounce between every letter produce fingerspelling that is very hard to watch or understand. Those who cannot overcome the habit of bouncing every letter may find it helpful to hold the wrist of the hand doing the fingerspelling with the free hand so that they are forced to keep the hand from moving up and down while fingerspelling. Usually, only a few hours or days of this is enough to break the habit of unnecessary bouncing while fingerspelling.

Common mistakes

Many mistakes made by beginning fingerspellers are directly attributable to how the manual alphabet is most often shown in graphics.


In most drawings or illustrations of the American Manual Alphabet, some of the letters are depicted from the side to better illustrate the desired handshape; however in practice, the hand should not be turned to the side when producing the letter. The letters C and O are two that are often mistakenly turned to the side by beginners who become used to seeing them from the side in illustrations. Important exceptions to the rule that the palm should always be facing the viewer are the letters G and H. These two letters should be made, not with the palm facing the viewer or the speaker, but with the palm facing sideways - the hand in an ergonomically neutral position.

Regardless of how they first learn the alphabet, many new signers also commonly confuse "a" and "s." The thumb should be on the side of your fist for the letter "a," but should be folded around the front of your fist for "s."

Also, note that the letter "k" points up, but the letter "p" points down; the handshapes are otherwise the same. In both cases, be sure to put the thumb on your middle finger, NOT in between your fingers.

The letters "u" and "h" share the same handshape, but "h" points your fingers to the side and "u" points your fingers up.

Another common error is to confuse "d" and "f." With the letter "d," your pointer finger sticks up but your other three fingers are curved inward to touch tips with your thumb. The letter "f" is opposite" you curve your pointer finger inward to touch tips with your thumb but stick the other three fingers upward, in a splayed position. Beginners may wish to be especially careful in double checking that they remember these letters correctly when they work on memorizing the alphabet.


Another mistake made by people faithfully following the pictures in most illustrations of the ASL fingerspelling alphabet is the signing of the cardinal numbers 1 - 5 with the palm facing out. The cardinal numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 should be signed palm in (towards the signer). This is in contrast with the cardinal numbers 6-9 which should be produced with the palm turned to face the person being addressed.

As with the letter O, the zero should not be turned to the side, but shown palm facing forward.

This applies only to the cardinal numbers however. Using numbers in other situations, such as with for showing the digits of the time for example, has different rules. When signing the time, the numbers are always facing the person being addressed, even the numbers one through five. Other signing situations involving numbers have their own norms that must be learned on a case by case basis.

Rhythm, speed & movement

When fingerspelling, your hand should be at shoulder height, and should not 'bounce' with each letter. Your hand should stay in one place and only the handshape changes (and orientation for some letters). If you have trouble doing this, you might want to hold your forearm with your nondominant hand in order to force your spelling hand to stay still. 'Bouncing' the letters makes your fingerspelling difficult to read, even for native signers.

As well, clear handshapes are much easier to read than fast fingerspelling. Do not concentrate on speed, as fast fingerspelling with poorly formed handshapes will be difficult to read. Try to fingerspell the whole word at the same speed, not speeding up or slowing down. A pause indicates the beginning of a new word, so if you suddenly slow down because a letter combination is difficult, your reader may think you are starting a new word, leading to misunderstanding. An exception to this sometimes appears at the beginning of a word. The first letter may be held for the length of a letter extra as a cue that the signer is about to start fingerspelling.

See also

External links

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