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When you’re signing in American Sign Language, the first thing you may notice are the handshapes used to form words. Those handshapes are the foundation of every ASL word.
In written ASL, for every handshape there is a matching mark called a digit.
Digits can be flipped to show both the right and left hands, as well as whether the palm orientation on one hand is turned to the inside or outwards.
Digits are always written from your viewpoint. Do not write them as you see other people sign them — write the digits as your handshapes appear in front of you.
Digits are based on the most important features of the handshape that they match. For an example, see how the “5” digit was formed below:
A single digit is made up of strokes, of which there are three types. The main stroke is usually the first one, forming the body of a digit. The thumb stroke shows the thumb or a finger that establishes where the palm orientation of the digit is in writing space. Finally, the finger stroke is occasionally used to differentiate between a whole hand or a single pair of fingers.
The fastest way to write a digit is to follow the order of strokes as shown above.
A collection of digits is called a digibet. 30 of the most common ASL handshapes are in the ASL digibet:
This digibet is meant as a guideline for writers to grow from until a standard majority enters common usage in the ASL community. It is a good place to start at before continuing to the Extended ASL Digibet.
The Extended ASL Digibet – lists many unusual and rare handshapes.
The ASLwrite Community Variant Digibet – contains variations of digits written by members of the community. (Coming Soon!)
The English Manual Alphabet – useful when English fingerspelling is needed.
Once you’ve had some experience in writing ASL, you likely will start exploring alternative digits. The following principles may be helpful in your process.
Principles for Digit Design
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 a handshape looks like. We see it once and continue on with deciphering the word.
2) 3 strokes or less
Efficient writing means more contact time between pencil and paper. The more we have to lift and add lines, the more the digit becomes drawing, not writing.
3) Distinct, tested design
A digit should obviously be a digit at any size, and distinctly different from other digits in the digibet. You should be able to catch its shape whether it’s on a billboard or laser-engraved onto a human hair. The only way to know if it works is to test it thoroughly in writing.
Here are some ideas to start incorporating the ASL digibet in your daily life:
– Write down the digits that you see on the ASLwrite website.
– Fingerspell your name and other common items around the house.
– Create an artwork around a particular digit and handshape that you like.
Next Step: Diacritics
Handshape photographs © Julia Dameron and Erik Call.
The ASLwrite Community has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the text and method of written ASL contained on this website and How We Write American Sign Language. In releasing copyright, we ask that written ASL be respected as the domain of the American Sign Language-speaking community and that it be given all the rights and privileges that written English enjoys.
This work is published from the United States.