Dispelling prescriptive rules in  fingerspelling: the case of --

Dispelling prescriptive rules in  fingerspelling: the case of --
Where there is variation in a language, there is also an opportunity to espouse prescriptivist rules with no basis
in actual usage. American Sign Language (), is no exception: as nearly anyone with  experience can attest to,
various prescriptive rules are taught independent of actual use in the community. One such prescriptive rule is that
the -- handshape should always have the fingers touching the thumb (figure a, closed--), and never be open (figure
c, open--).
Sometimes you’ll see people do an “e” with an opening between the fingertips and the thumb. I don’t
recommend that method at all. I call that a “screaming E” or a “[adult, second language learner]’s E.”¹
Using a corpus of  fingerspelling, we have determined that both --s are used by Deaf, native signers. The
choice of which shows both inter- and intra-signer variation, conditioned on the position in the word, as well as the
surrounding context of the -Our method – We recorded  native  signers and  early learner fingerspelling a total of , words. We coded
the video by identifying each letter that was fingerspelled. This provides us with a point to analyze variation between
hand configurations for each letter. We extracted still images, then hand coded all --s using a binary code: fingers
touching the thumb, or not. This resulted in a total of  tokens of --.
Results – The percentage of open-- variants ranges among the signers from  to . Using a large dataset
of fingerspelling from four signers we have found that both open-- and closed-- are used by native  signers
in fingerspelling. Using a mixed effects logistic regression model, we found statistically significant differences in
predictors based on the context of the --: . There are more close--s at word edges and when the word is fingerspelled
slowly, that is, the more canonical variant is preserved in highly prominent edge positions in slower fingerspelling. .
There are more open-- variants when they immediately precede handshapes that are completely closed (--, --, --,
--, --, --, or --). This serves to enhance the contrast between the -- and the following letter through dissimilation
of the joint configuration.
Implications – Signers using more open--s before closed handshapes supports the M A C
constraint proposed by Brentari (). This constraint prefers handshape changes from open to closed (or vice versa),
rather than closed-closed or open-open. Thus, the variation in --s makes fingerspelled sequences more compatible
with the phonology proposed for the core  lexicon. Similar phenomena have been documented for fingerspelled
loansigns (Battison, ; Brentari and Padden, ; Cormier et al., ), this work shows that this phonological
constraint is not limited to loansigns, but puts pressure on fingerspelling generally to conform to more native -like
parts of the  lexicon.
(a) closed-(b) closed-(c) open-(d) open-Figure : Apogees from (a) ------, (b) --------, (c) ------, and (d) ---
Battison, R. (). Lexical Borrowing in American Sign Language. Linstock Press, Inc., Silver Spring, Maryland.
Brentari, D. (). A prosodic model of sign language phonology. The MIT Press.
Brentari, D. and Padden, C. (). Foreign vocabulary in sign languages: A cross-linguistic investigation of word formation, chapter
Native and foreign vocabulary in American Sign Language: A lexicon with multiple origins, pages –. Lawrence Erlbaum,
Mahwah, NJ.
Cormier, K., Schembri, A., and Tyrone, M. E. (). One hand or two? nativisation of fingerspelling in  and . Sign
Language & Linguistics, ():–.
word count 
¹From: www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/handshapes.htm accessed  July .