Fingerspelling: From Alphabet to Syllabary

National standards for sign languages of the Deaf have evolved in different ways, but almost always with foreign influence. Much of the vocabulary of American Sign Language (ASL) was adapted from earlier standardized French Sign Language (FSL), and both remain very different from British Sign Language (BSL).

The standardizers of ASL also adapted the one-handed manual alphabet (fingerspelling) of FSL. Most letters in the BSL alphabet, by contrast, require the use of both hands. As relative latecomers, the standardizers of Japanese Sign Language (JSL) also adapted its fingerspelling standards from the FSL/ASL tradition, but with a twist: they turned the manual alphabet into a kana-based syllabary. According to Karen Nakamura’s Deaf Resource Library:

JSL appears to be a much “younger” language form than many other national sign languages. The first school for the deaf was established in Kyoto in 1878 and we have very little evidence for sign language communities before that time (although they no doubt existed in small pockets). The current form of fingerspelling was introduced in the early 20th century and is based on the fingerspellling used in Spain, France, and the United States. However, many older Deaf do not know the fingerspelling forms or numerals and most Deaf born before the end of World War II (1948) did not attend school since it was only after the war that compulsory education for the Deaf was instituted.

Fingerspelling is much less common in JSL than it is in ASL. Japanese signers appear to rely much more on “airwriting” kanji rather than spelling out pronunciations by means of signed kana. Nevertheless, let’s examine a few of the ways a 26-sign alphabet was adapted and expanded into a syllabary of almost twice that many signs. For more discussion, see Wikipedia; images of JSL finger spellings can be found on the Tokyo Green Systems website.

  • Borrowing directly – The five vowels of ASL serve as the five vowels of JSL: A, I, U, E, O. Eight ASL consonants (K, S, N, H, M, Y, R, W) serve as the top row of the syllabary: KA, SA, (TA), NA, HA, MA, YA, RA, WA. ASL T is an obscene gesture in Japan, so a thumb raised above a fist (rather than inserted between the first two fingers) was substituted for it. The same sign means otoko ‘man’ in JSL.
  • Using numbers for sounds – The signs for numbers are used to represent syllables that occur in those same numbers: 1 = HI(totu), 2 = NI, 3 = MI(tu), 4 = YO(tu), 6 = MU(tu), 7 = SI(ti), 9 = KU. (The number ‘1000’ can be signed either by katakana TI [チ] or by airwriting the kanji [千] from which the former derives.)
  • Signing katakana shapes – The following signs evoke the shapes of the katakana representation of the same syllables: KO, SU, TI, TU, NO, HU, HE, RI, RU, RE, RO, N.
  • Signing pictographs – Several signs are pictorial: KI ~ kitune ‘fox’ (with outside fingers raised like ears and middle two touching the thumb like a snout); SE ~ se ‘spine’ (a raised middle finger, but with the palm facing the viewer); SO ~ sore ‘that’ (pointing); TE ~ te ‘hand’ (an open hand); TO ~ to ‘and’ (first two fingers side-by-side); NE ~ ne ‘root’ (all fingers pointing down); HO = ho ‘sail’ (back of hand like billowing sail); ME ~ me ‘eye’ (between thumb and forefinger); MO ~ mo ‘too, also’ (JSL sign for onaji ‘same’); YU ~ yu ‘hot water’ (three fingers like symbol for public bath house).
  • Adding diacritics – As in the kana syllabaries, voicing is indicated by diacritics. For instance, GA, DA, and BA are derived from the shape of KA, TA, and HA, respectively, by adding a short sideways motion, and PA is derived from the shape of HA by adding a short upward motion. Vowel length is shown by adding a short downward motion after a syllable, like the length mark in katakana.

See also Wayne H. Smith’s (2005) article in Language and Linguistics 6:187–215 about Taiwan Sign Language (TSL), which appears to share nearly half its vocabulary with JSL. Taiwan signers don’t fingerspell Bopomofo syllables. Instead, they rely exclusively on “airwriting” hanzi.

UPDATE: Unlike the JSL kana syllabary, which was clearly adapted from earlier manual alphabets in ASL and FSL, the Japanese Morse Code syllabary is utterly distinct from alphabetic Morse Code. Compare:

  • K –·– vs. KA ·–··
  • S ··· vs. SA –·–·–
  • T – vs. TA –·
  • N –· vs. NA ·–·
  • H ···· vs. HA –···
  • M –– vs. MA –··–
  • Y –·–– vs. YA ·––
  • R ·–· vs. RA ···
  • W ·–– vs. WA –·–

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