Sign Language used by Americans. At the very least, the distinction is necessary for the presence of the english alphabet to spell out words. I'm not sure how British sign langauge differs.

You can find a good online dictionary at http://www.masterstech-home.com/asldict.html

ASL is really a language. It is not English conveyed into signs, nor is it a manual code for English. There is not just one universal sign language for deaf people worldwide. Since ASL has a grammatical structure, just as does any language, which makes it a distinct language. It seperates itself from others, however, in that it is spoken visually, not audibly as others are, with precise words and movements. ASL can convey ideas of all sizes, just as speakers of English can. Also, since ASL is a language, it is only spoken by a certain region of the world, thus there are many dialects. Deaf people worldwide use several different sign languages.

ASL was developed by the American Deaf in 1817, for communication purposes. Laurent Clerc and Thomas H. Gallaudet established the first school for the deaf in the U.S. From there on, the schools spread throughout America and Canada. The language passed through posterity residentially, though school and dormitory life. At times when signing was not permitted in the classroom, the parents, students, and teachers secretly used it. Now, ASL is used by a half million people in America and Canada.

People have been discouraged from using ASL since the late 1800's. Educators have insisted that deaf children learn to speak English, as they deem deaf people can fit into society only by lipreading and speech. Some educators have even gone so far as to tie down a person's hands to prevent them from signing. Despite the attempts to phase out ASL, the deaf community still prefers ASL.

A good way to help yourself learn ASL is to get yourself a copy of the American Sign Language Dictionary, by Martin L.A. Sternberg. There's even a multimedia edition available on CD-ROM which makes the drawings easier to interpret.
The book was originally published in 1994 (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc) and has since been revised. It contains over 6,600 illustrations and 4,400 signs -- certainly enough to get someone started. It also houses the simplest and clearest illustrated version of the American Manual Alphabet I've found. Once you get that down, you can sign any word you can spell...which comes in handy when you get stuck in the middle of an ASL conversation.
The author is a faculty member at Hofstra University and Adelphi University. He's been deaf since age 7.

The fascinating thing about ASL, and signed language in general, is that modern linguists agree that it shares every major characteristic of spoken language, except for the fact that it is articulated with hand motions instead of speech. The exact same areas of the brain, Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area, affect the production and comprehension of signs as they do spoken language, and deaf people with aphasia will find their abilities to produce or understand hand signs affected in the exact same way as a hearing aphasiac finds their ability to use spoken language affected.

ASL itself is a linguistic creole, a mixture of French Sign Language, or LSF, and several home sign systems, especially Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, or MVSL, a sign language used by the deaf population of Martha's Vineyard, which once numbered into the hundreds. MVSL itself has laregely been lost to linguistic historians, who now study the development of ASL and sign language in general avidly, but some of it can be tentatively reconstructed from the differences between ASL and LSF.

There exists an expanding genre of artistic works produced in ASL, including storytelling, which is considered one of the cornerstones of the deaf community, and even a large body of poetry.

For a fascinating look at the relationship between deafness, sign, speech and language, see Oliver Sacks' book Seeing Voices. He studies the evolution of ASL, contrasting it with the much less evocative and flexible Signed English. The latter was devised by hearing people, and there was oppression of ASL as 'ethnic' almost, where deaf children were forced to use Signed English.

Perhaps the most powerful passage in the book is one where Sacks is on Martha's Vineyard to study indigenous sign, due to the genetic traits that resulted in a high percentage of deaf residents of the island. He comes across an old woman sleeping in her chair on her porch. Her hands are twitching, and after a moment he realizes she is signing in her sleep - she's dreaming in MVSL.

I was sold a card by a beggar at a Dunkin' Donuts in Baltimore, Maryland last year. Here are the letters - they can be used when one does not know the specific sign for a given word or concept, or when there does not exist a sign for it:
A                     B                         C
                       ,,,,
                       ||||                        ___
____                   ||||                         \\\
||||\                  |  /\                     |\_/ /
\^^^/                  \  ^/                      \  /
 | |                    | |                       | |
(clenched fist)        (extended palm)           (C-formed fist)


D E F ,, ,, ,,,, || _____ \\ |||| ____|| ||||| \\||||_ ||// | |^^__| \ //| \^\`-| \ ´´/ | \`| | `/ | | \ / (D-formed fist) (clenched fist) (OK-sign) (with thumb underneath) (with spread fingers)

G H I ,, ||___ ________ ________ ||||| `^^^=__ \ `====__ \ |^^__| \ \/ \ \/ \ ´´/ | | | | | | (pointing hand) (pointing hand) (clenched fist) (with two fingers) (with little finger up)

J K L ,, ,, ,, ,, ||___ | \\ // || ||||| | __\\// __|| |^^__| ´|` | |||/\ ||| \___ \ ´´/ \__/ \^^^/ \^^ /^^´ | | | | | | (same as i) (Victory sign) (Form an L) (but move as a J) (with thumb in front)

M N O ___ ____ ____ //\\\ <|||\ |<||\ |\/ / \^^^/ \^^^/ \ / | | | | | | (clenched fist) (clenched fist) (O-formed fist) (with 3 fingers on top)(with 2 fingers on top) (of the thumb) (of the thumb)

P Q R ,,, ___ \\/ ________ / \ _/\\ `^^^=__ \ //^||| || /\ //\ \/ // ||| \ ^/ // | | `´ |^ | | | (pointing hand) (V pointing down) (cross your fingers) (with middle finger) (pointing down 45°)

S T U ,,, ||| ____ __,_ _||| |||<\ ||||\ || /\ \^^^/ \^^^/ \ ^/ | | | | | | (clenched fist) (clenched fist) (two upright fingers) (with thumb on top) (with thumb between) (middle and index)

V W X ,, ,, ,, ,, ,, \\ // \\ || // _ __\\// \\||// __|| ||| / | /\ |||/\ \^^ / \ ^/ \^^^/ | | | | | | (Victory sign) (form a W) (bent index finger)

Y Z ,, ,, \\ || ___ \\___ __|| / ||||\___ |||/\ / \^^^/^^´ \^^^/ /__\ | | | | / (make a Y) (pointing finger) (move as Z)

I know my ASCII art is horrible, but I hope it gets the point accross.

What is interesting about the manual alphabet is that it is a form of Signing Exact English but contrary to popular belief, is cannot be used when one does not know the specific sign for a given word or concept, or when there does not exist a sign for it. Since fingerspelling it would be giving an English word instead of a ASL concept, only a billingual deaf person (one who is fluent in both English and American Sign Language) would understand you.

There is a way to describe concepts you do not know or concepts that do not have signs to a deaf person using ASL: it is by using classifiers: descriptive signs indicating size, consistancy, movement, etc.

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