The ASL Digibet

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

As one of our New Year’s resolutions, ASLwrite would like to make it easier for you to learn written ASL! The following video is #2 in our 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!

If you’re just joining us now, you can go back and start with Why Write American Sign Language?

Today, we’re digging into the structure of written ASL! Feel free to watch the video or read the text.


How Do We Sign ASL?

We’re used to signing every day, but we usually don’t give much thought to how we are able to express ourselves in American Sign Language. How is it possible for us to express our words?

We do that through the unique way it is structured. ASL has five parts:

  • Handshapes
  • Palm Orientation
  • Movement
  • Spatial Orientation
  • Extramanual Signals (also known as Non-manual Signals)

For each of the 5 parts of expressive ASL, written ASL has its own counterpart. We will go through each in order throughout this course.



In this installment, we are focusing on the first component of ASL. The basic building blocks of our language are handshapes, and their written counterparts are digits.

Right Hand 5 and Digit

If you ask a signer what handshapes are, they will usually give you examples from the manual alphabet. That actually belongs to English. ASL has over 60 unique handshapes, which can be difficult to memorize all at once.


The Digibet

In order to make it easier to start learning handshapes and their corresponding digits, we’ve created a digibet. It has 30 of the most commonly used handshapes, sequenced in a memorizable order.


The full 60+ handshapes are still represented in the extended digibet. (Both digibets can be downloaded here.)

The sign name “5SG” for the digibet comes from the extended digibet. It is organized into 3 categories: Open, Closed, and Mixed handshapes. The first digit of each category is represented in the name sign.


Identifying Handedness

Written ASL for the most part reflects our perspective as signers. The paper we write on becomes a “carbon copy” of ourselves. For this reason digits have both left-handed and right-handed versions, also helping with identifying palm orientation.




For today’s assignment, start writing out the digits and memorizing the digibet. Use creative mediums to explore the shapes and writing structure. Draw a picture that incorporates your writing — experiment with left- and right-handed digits. Create a digibet story, even!

NEXT: Move Your Digits!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Facebook IconYouTube IconTwitter Icon