Archive of ‘howto’ category

Why Write American Sign Language?

As one of our New Year’s resolutions, ASLwrite would like to make it easier for you to learn written ASL! We will have a 6-week course in written ASL featured here on the website, Twitter, and Facebook. It’s a great complement to the How to Write American Sign Language book!

Today, we’re starting the Written ASL Basics course! Feel free to watch the video or read the text.


Why write American Sign Language?

There are two parts to this question — expressive ASL, and writing itself.

Why is it important to have expressive ASL? I’ve mentioned before that language is a depository of a culture’s history and values. In the case of ASL, we have a unique set of values that are ingrained in the language.

Let me tell you a story. Robert Sirvage, a DeafBlind researcher, was studying Deaf Space when he came across something interesting. He had set up a camera within a hall at Gallaudet, filming people who were conversing with each other as they travelled down the hall. Those who were speaking moved independently of each other. In contrast, two signers moved forward with each other. When one person stepped back, the other shifted closer. The two signers’ physical spaces became one unit so well that they moved around obstacles together.

The very nature of signing ASL is inclusion. A conversation is not only about the person who is signing but about the person listening. It is a two-way interaction, and this is one of the core values of the signing community. We have a unique way of interacting with each other, and that affects how we express ourselves within American Sign
Language word choices and structure. It is part of the values we pass on through our language.


Second, take a moment to think about writing itself. In your daily life, have you noticed how much writing is in your surroundings?

For example, when you go to your workplace there are large “EXIT” signs above certain doors. Why are the signs there and not auditory warnings that blare “EXIT, EXIT, EXIT”? I would imagine things becoming quite noisy and confusing with so many items blaring out their names. Reducing it to a specific visual area and emphasis makes it much easier to process.

The time it takes to recognize letters and understand meaning is a lot faster than the time it takes to listen to a word. This applies to both spoken English and signed ASL. When we read various things in text, like newspapers and online articles, we process the words at our own pace. We are able to digest and absorb concepts within our means.

Not only that, paper is an excellent, inexpensive and portable technology. A lot of information can fill one page of text. Digital technology, for all its possibilities, still borrows the principles of text on paper.


Now, I’ve explained the values of ASL and the benefits of writing. When we combine the two, we get written ASL.

Let me give you a little bit of my background. I’m an artist, and I’m a writer. Those two skills are combined in my comics. For a long time I struggled with showing my native language, ASL, in my work. I would see other people writing in English or Spanish, and feel frustrated that I could not do the same for my own language. Sometimes I would draw my characters frozen mid-word, but that didn’t work. It was not a true representation.

When I saw written ASL (si5s), I was thrilled to discover the intuitive ways that it captured ASL in efficient strokes. Si5s fit the parameters for writing well. After that, I picked it up and kept going.

The good news is that if you watched the video, you already are fluent in ASL.It will be much easier to start writing because of your innate understanding of the language. Once you make the mental connection between your signs and the written words, the rest will flow.

If you have any questions and concerns during this course, please do email me at Do feel free to comment and share your thoughts below as well!

NEXT: The ASL Digibet

Solving the Mystery of Locatives

When learning a new language, sometimes we feel like a detective trying to solve the mystery of how a language works.

In written ASL, the digibet and locatives are the most commonly used marks. Knowing them will speed up your time in learning written ASL.


Now imagine you’re walking down the street, deep in ASL conversation with a friend. The two of you are moving at a distance between each other.

The signing space right in front of you is called neutral space. When you write, you write from your perspective as a signer. Many words stay within this space, but sometimes your handshapes bump your shoulder, chin, or other body part. When this happens, the body location distinguishes the meaning of your handshape. You have gone into locative space.

If you want to write down the ASL words that connect to your body, use special marks called locatives.

anatomy 193x300 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

The above picture is an “anatomy chart” for written ASL. Please do feel free to click and print it out!

The movement lines in locative space do not follow your actual motions like in neutral space. They are written in the third-person perspective (also the perspective of your conversing friend).

Below are a few words that show how each mark is used.

(Note from Adrean: My special tool for digital writing broke, so for a few weeks I will be writing on note-lined paper. I have an “artistic” handwriting so if anything’s not clear, please do comment below or email me!)

Profile Locative Examples

hello 300x173 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

“Hello” uses the Face and Forehead to Nose locatives.

kid 300x257 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

The ASL word “kid” can easily be written with the Nose locative.

will 300x195 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

“Will” or “shall” is a great example of how locatives can completely change the meaning of a digit. The face and nose-to-chin locatives are written here.

backofmind 300x77 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

If you have an idea that you’d like to store for a while, use the Back of Head locative. It’s also the “home” of your subconscious.

feel 300x206 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

“Feel” makes contact with the Torso locative. Notice how the size can expand or contract depending on what you are comfortable with.

arrow1 300x73 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

If you have a war story, then describe taking an arrow with the Knee locative. (A little something for Skyrim fans. :) )

Frontal Locative Examples

president 300x139 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

“President” makes use of the Forehead frontal locative.

dry Solving the Mystery of Locatives

The Chin locative works great with “dry.”

stuck 300x230 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

“Stuck” is written with the Neck locative.

our 300x268 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

Written ASL belongs to “our” community! Use the Shoulders locative to fill in the word. (It can be split into half if the sign only contacts one side.)

time 300x261 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

The Arm/Wrist locative helps establish the word “time.”

longshirt 300x145 Solving the Mystery of Locatives

Wearing a shirt that’s too long at the torso? Describe it using the Waist locative.

For in-depth information on movement space and locatives, check out How to Write American Sign Language!

Writing “All Day and All Night”

The ASL words “all day” and “all night” are part of a special class in writing. Normally, one would write them with a digit, but because the location and motion are easily recognizable, the digit is completely dropped.

nob 300x127 Writing All Day and All Night

(drawn/written from the perspective of the signer/writer)

This special class is called the dropped indicators. Indicators are marks that summarize and show (or indicate) a signed word or concept. The “dropped” part refers to the unnecessary digit.

Here is the full “all day” word:

allday 300x118 Writing All Day and All Night

Night owls go “all night”:

allnight 300x125 Writing All Day and All Night

Is it possible to combine the two? Yes!

alldaynight 300x182 Writing All Day and All Night

Another way to write “all day and all night”:

version2 Writing All Day and All Night

Do the visuals help you see the words better? Let us know in the comments below!

To learn more about indicators, check out How to Write American Sign Language.

Move Your Digits! – Written ASL Diacritics

Do You Know Your Digibet?

We’ve created a video that explains the ASL digibet. In a nutshell:

– A digit represents a handshape.

– The ASL digibet collects 30 of the most commonly used handshapes.

– More digits are in the extended digibet, because they are either specialized in their usage and/or infrequently used. (This extended digibet may change over time.)

The digibet and the extended digibet are also available for download here.

Many thanks to Julia Dameron and Erik Call for their excellent work on the handshape photographs!

Preorders for How to Write American Sign Language will end this Friday, July 27.

Reserve your copy today and get 20% off!

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