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Sutton-Spence, Rachel


The role of the manual alphabet and fingerspelling in British sign language.

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A dissertation submitted to the University of Bristol in accordance with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

July, 1994 I certify that this dissertation is my own independent work and has not been presented previously for any other degree.

Date: T iii o it Signed*


The research in this dissertation would not have been possible without the help of a great many people.

My advisor Bencie Woll has provided invaluable support, both moral and academic, throughout the time of my research and writing up. I could not have wanted for more from an advisor.

The collection of the necessary data was only possible through the good will of many deaf and hearing signers, who not only agreed to take part in the formal studies, but also entered into innumerable impromptu discussions on all sorts of aspects of fingerspelling. Particular thanks go to Gloria Pullen who has been involved with the research from the start and has spent many hours discussing fingerspelling, often preceded by the laughably inaccurate request "Can I just ask you a quick question?". Gloria helped me make the source material for Study 5. Few other people would have had the patience, generosity and fingerspelling skills to help in the way that she did.

All the staff and students at the Centre for Deaf Studies have been involved in some way in the creation of this work, and I am grateful to all of them.

Information on wide-ranging aspects of the subject area came from colleagues and friends on the E-mail, particularly from Tane Akamatsu, James McQueen and Jill Rudd. Countless other people, too numerous to mention by name, have responded from all over the world to my requests for information.

Mary Plackett at the RNID library was never anything less than helpful in all my visits, and 1 am very grateful for her permission to photograph several of the library's oldest texts.

lam also grateful to Simon Carmel for his kind permission to reproduce several of his drawings of manual alphabets from around the world.

Bridget Peace drew the original illustrations in Figures 1.1, 1.5, and 1.29.

For the first twenty months of the research period (from March 1991 to December 1992), 1 was supported financially by the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number R00429024933.

Finally, my thanks go to all my friends and family who tried to judge the right moment to ask "How's the PhD going?", and to Kerry for all her love, support and

–  –  –

The research reported here is a description of, and explanation for, the use of the manual alphabet and fingerspelling in the signing of the British deaf community. This is conducted within theoretical frameworks already existing in mainstream and sign language linguistics.

There are four main strands in the research, each addressing a separate question within the main aim.

The history of the British manual alphabet per se has not been documented in great detail before. In this research, the British manual alphabet is traced back to the mid-seventeenth century. Succeeding manual alphabets are described and the features of their evolution commented upon. As many alphabet charts as possible are illustrated. Other two-handed manual alphabets in use in the world are also described.

The use of the manual alphabet by British deaf signers is described, qualitatively and quantitatively, demonstrating that it serves as a major lexical resource for borrowing, and also to permit code-switching. The overall use, and the form of the signs produced using the manual alphabet are shown to vary in variants of BSL.

The form of signs using the manual alphabet are shown to be dictated by an interaction of linguistic and sociolinguistic factors. The phonology and morphology of BSL interact with the orthography and morphology of the English word to produce the final form used. Using the basic description of restructuring of lexicalised fingerspellings in ASL devised by Battison (1978), the restructuring of fingerspellings used by BSL signers is shown to undergo many similar changes, but also to behave somewhat differently due to the two-handed nature of British fingerspelling. As well as the lexicalised fingerspellings described by Battison, this research identifies the influences involved in the creation of single manual letter signs, and of fingerspellings derived from polymorphemic English words.

The research has important implications for a sign linguistics field which, until recently, has virtually ignored parts of sign languages strongly influenced by English. It demonstrates that even when the source for a sign is English, the sign language influences the form and meaning of the derived sign. It is also of direct relevance to mainstream linguistics, demonstrating that the processes and constraints of borrowing between languages can be observed in borrowing between the written forms of spoken languages and signed languages, just as in borrowing between spoken languages.


VOLUME 1 Chapter 1

–  –  –


EDUCATION 3.3.1 Fingerspelling in Early Spanish Deaf Education 93 3.3.2 Fingerspelling in Early British Deaf Education 95 3.3.3 Fingerspelling in Early French Deaf Education 98 3.3.4 Fingerspellinci in Early German Deaf Education 3.5.5 Fingerspelling in Early American Deaf Education 103



3.4.1 Fincerspelling in the 19th Century 3.4.2 Recent Changes in Fingerspelling in British Deaf Education

–  –  –

4.7 INFLUENCE OF GRAMMATICAL CATEGORY ON LOANS 145 4.7.1 Borrowing Verbs in Spoken Languages Class Size as a Factor in Borrowing Verbs 147 Length of Time of Contact as a Factor in Borrowing Verbs 147 Grammatical Inflection of verbs as a Factor in Borrowing Verbs General Applicability of Words to Describe Actions 4.7.2 Manual Letter Verbs as Neologisms 4.7.3 The Factors Constraining the Use of Fingerspelling in Loan Verbs Incorporation of Manner in BSL Verbs Conflict between English and BSL Verb Morphology Sign Language Verb Classes

4.8 SUMMARY Chapter 5



–  –  –

Chapter 7




7.1 GENERAL PROFILE OF SEE HEAR! DATA 7.1.1. Absolute Quantity of Fingerspelling Types of Words Fin gerspelled Fingerspelled Verbs Fin gerspelled Function Words

–  –  –

9.3 RESTRUCTURED SMLS WITH EXTRA MOVEMENT 380 9.3.1 Single Manual Letters with Movement that has no Separate Meaning 9.3.2. Letter Combined with a Sign Movement Radical 9.3.3 Sign Radical with Letter Handshape (Initialised signs)

–  –  –

APPENDIX V (SMLS given in the Dictionary of BSL/English) (Vol 2) 63 APPENDIX VI (Responses to stimuli in the Place-names Study) (Vol 2) 65 APPENDIX VII (Number of SMLS beginning with each letter) (Vol 2) 68

–  –  –

Table 7.9: Percentage occurrence of uses of SMLS and whole fingerspellings for different presenters of See Hear! 257 Table 7.

10: Percentage of different types of lexical items using the manual alphabet in "theatrical" and "child" registers 263 Chapter 8 Table 8.1: Percentage of fully fingerspelled words for each word-type. 274

–  –  –

Table 9.6: Responses from deaf signers in the place-names study, showing the percentage of articulations of the SMLS derived from English words with different syllabic structures.

354 Table 9.7: Responses from hearing signers in the place-names study, showing the percentage of articulations of the SMLS derived from English words with different syllabic structures. 355 Table 9.8: Percentage of articulations in SMLS derived from bisyllabic source words, with comparative data from See Hear! study. 358 Table 9.9: Percentage of articulations in a SMLS derived from a trisyllabic source word, with comparative data from See Hear! study. 359

–  –  –

Figure 2.1: Variations of the letter representing "f".

(i) Digiti Lingua, 1698; (ii) Defoe, 1732; (iii) Watson, 1809;

(iv) Arrowsmith, 1819; (v) Mrs Hippisley Tuckfield, 1839; (vi) Kitto, 1845; (vii) Rhind, undated; (viii) Smith, 1864; (ix) Anon, 1893;

(x) The modern British manual alphabet. 426 Figure 2.2: Variations of the letter representing "h".

(i) Digiti Lingua, 1698; (ii) Defoe, 1732; (iii) Watson, 1809;

(iv) The modern British manual alphabet. 427 Figure 2.3: Variations of the letter representing "j".

(i) Defoe, 1732; (ii) Kitto, 1845; (iii) Rhind, undated; (iv) Arrowsmith, 1819; (v) Watson, 1809; (vi) The modern British manual alphabet. 428 Figure 2.4: Variations of the letter representing "x".

(i) Defoe, 1732; (ii) Watson, 1809; (iii) Arrowsmith, 1819;

(iv) Mrs Hippisley Tuckfield, 1839; (v) Kitto, 1845; (vi) Smith, 1864; (vii) The modern British manual alphabet. 429

–  –  –

When describing signs in this dissertation, the following typographical

conventions will be used:

Uses of British manual letters are written in lower case, with hyphens between each letter.



Individual manual letters are written in lower case, preceded and followed by hyphens. Thus -f-.

Glosses of a sign, whether derived from an instance of use of the manual alphabet or non-derived are written in upper case. Thus: FINGERSPELLING.

English words are written in lower case, preceded and followed by quotation marks. Thus: "fingerspelling".

Letters from the English alphabet are preceded and followed by quotation marks.

Thus: "f" or "F".

Fingerspellings made using one-handed manual alphabets (particularly the American one-handed manual alphabet) are written in lower case, with full-stops between each letter. Thus:.f.i.n.g.e.r.s.p.e.I.I.i.n.g.

The "alternative" one-handed manual letters used by British signers are written in upper case, surrounded by full-stops. Thus:.1.,.L., and.0.

–  –  –

shown in upper case, in inverted commas. Thus the open, flat hand is written 'B', and a fist with the extended index finger is written 'G'.

Where a direct quotation is made of another author, their conventions will be observed.

The lack of an accepted written form of BSL leads to difficulties in presenting the forms of signs mentioned in this research. Glossing allows the meaning of the sign to be given, but not its form. A video appendix accompanies this dissertation, giving signed examples of some of the signs. Although it is strongly recommended that the reader uses this appendix in conjunction with this dissertation, all the signs in the video appendix are also described in the text.

No illustrations will be given of examples cited here that use single or multiple manual letters: the forms of the letters in the manual alphabet may be seen in Figure 1.1. Many other signs mentioned in the text may be found in the BDA BSUEnglish dictionary, which contains excellent, clear photographs of signs, and a Stokoe-based transcription of each sign. Where signs are contained in the BSUEnglish dictionary, the dictionary's reference numbers for those signs are given (in the order of the page in this dissertation on which they appear), in Appendix VIII.

–  –  –


1.0 INTRODUCTION The research presented in this dissertation aims to describe, and account for, the use of the manual alphabet in British Sign Language (BSL), the language of the British deaf community. Before it is possible to conduct such research, it is necessary to define what is meant by the manual alphabet, and by British Sign Language.

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