Fingerspelling – proper nouns and English | ASL Ponderings & Deaf Awareness Month

Hello, I’m Rogan and welcome. It’s been a while since I did an ASL Ponderings, so let’s do one today! I guess you could call this part three, because I have talked about fingerspelling a little bit before, and I have one video I’ve been wanting to make but I want to make sure to do proper research for that one. Today, I’m going to talk about the purpose of fingerspelling, and some myths people have been told about it. A quick disclaimer before I get into it – I am not saying I’m against fingerspelling, or that it’s bad, or anything. It is useful! I’m just giving a different perspective on this.

A lot of people like to call fingerspelling ASL, so much to the point where deaf people are used to having hearing people say oh, oh! I know ASL! Then proceed to fingerspell the ABCs. [zoom in] First, no. Second, absolutely not. In all seriousness, you can’t claim to know ASL when you only know the ABCs. That’s like saying you know Japanese, but you actually only know the hiragana, their phonetic writing system, and no actual words. Fingerspelling is also not technically sign language. It’s a way of coding English into a visual form, similar to Japanese katakana which is their system for transcribing foreign-language words or writing loan words. So really, whenever we fingerspell, we’re borrowing words from English. I think there’s nothing wrong with that, languages borrow words from others all the time. If you’re involved with the deaf community, you probably are aware that there’s been a fairly recent massive push for removing initialized signs, that’s signs that use letters rather than a non-letter handshape, and English words from ASL. People mostly of my generation have been borrowing signs from other countries, or picking up on a regional sign and spreading it outside of its original region. And I think that’s fantastic! That’s how language works. It’s a living, breathing thing. Unfortunately, and of course, there are those who are screaming that ASL is being ruined, it needs to be preserved, which is kind of ridiculous. If you look at what was considered ASL a hundred years ago, it looks different and it’s very much influenced by English, more so than today. Getting back to the point, fingerspelling is very much a code for converting spoken/written languages into a visual language for immediate communication.

With that in mind, let’s talk about what people are generally taught to do in regard to fingerspelling. In one of my previous videos, I touched on this. People are often taught to hold a finger on their wrist every time they spell a word, always. Well… That’s generally used for formal ASL, to be used on stage, doing a presentation, reporting news, or things like that. Sometimes you’d use it for emphasis in everyday conversation, but rarely. It’s really not necessary and usually not used in everyday language.

One of the biggest things that’s emphasized SO much in a lot of ASL classes, or at least what I know of in my experience, is proper nouns. Teachers often tell their students that you MUST spell all proper nouns. Before I go into that and why in my view it’s inaccurate, let’s review what proper nouns are. Generally, they’re the name of a person, a place, an organization, countries, brands, and titles of various works like books, movies, art, and so on. With that review, let’s talk. First, I have talked about this with some people so this isn’t coming from just me. I suspect this is partially a holdover from the Rochester Method. The Rochester Method was when deaf children were educated using a mixture of oral language and fingerspelling, no signing allowed. [fingerspelling] So it would basically look like this, which no thank you. [ASL] You can see why barely anyone uses it today, it’s… A lot. Anyway. Proper nouns. For some reason, ASL students are taught to spell every single proper noun. I personally don’t know a single fluent ASL and deaf signer that would prefer you to spell out proper nouns. I mean, we come up with signs for brand names all the time. We have signs for countries, states, and cities. We create sign names for people. We will sign the title of movies, books, and so on if we’re able. If it happens to have a word that doesn’t have a sign equivalent, we’ll spell it out. Or if someone asks for clarification on the exact title, sure, spell it out. It just kind of bothers me that I see so many people being told that it’s a MUST to fingerspell proper nouns, when deaf people themselves almost never follow that rule. This applies to quite a few other things that are taught in ASL classes as well, why are they still teaching things that deaf people don’t do?

I’m not sure what else to say for this video, so I’m going to end here. If anything else comes to mind, I’ll add it below this. Let me know what your thoughts are on this!

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Published by Rogan Shannon

Hello there! I'm Rogan, a queer deaf guy who has a passion for leadership and advocacy. I create YouTube videos about a lot of different topics - being deaf, queer, reading, language, and whatever else interests me!

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