What’s The Secret To ASL Digits?

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Snap on your steampunk goggles and zip up your adventuring coat as we plumb the mysterious depths of digits today!

Our ASL digibet continues to evolve with community use. The most effective digits share visible links to their connected handshapes. Take a look at this gentle dissection:

ASL handshape and digit

The “5” digit above has its “bones” within the visual structure of the hand. Each line within a digit is called a stroke. Here’s how the strokes of the digit work together:

Digit Stroke Structure

The main stroke is usually the first, large line that creates the body of the digit. When a handshape has more than one finger involved, the finger stroke shows their position. Finally, the chereme stroke establishes palm orientation for the hand. (It’s usually the thumb or the little finger.)

Now that we’ve covered the “bones” of a digit, are you able to see the connections between digits and handshapes below?

Digit Comparison

How is it that the digits and handshapes work together so well? Hold onto your fedoras — here’s where things get really interesting.

Good digit design follows three principles:

1) Visually evoke the handshape

A digit needs to be as close to the original ASL handshape as possible, without being too exact. The reason for this is when we are conversing in ASL, we don’t waste time figuring out what exactly that handshape is. We see it and then move on quickly.

2) 3 strokes or less

Efficient writing means less lines in the written shapes. The more strokes a digit has, the more it becomes drawing instead of writing.

3) Distinct, tested design

A digit should be obvious at any size, and clearly different from others in the digibet. If you have to squint and adjust your goggles, the digit’s dead. Thoroughly test both old and new ideas!

The above principles are the true secret of successful ASL digits. As written ASL continues to be used within the community, new ones will pop up and old ones will change. It’s the natural evolution of our language — and it can’t happen without an adventurous YOU. Come join the discussion at the ASLwrite Google Group!


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