I recently picked up a book on Chinese sign language called 手语基础. “Practicality” was not a major consideration in the organization of the book; it seems to be written by linguists for linguists. If I needed the book to actually communicate in Chinese sign language I’d probably be pretty disgusted with it, but since my interest is primarily academic, I’m enjoying it.
In its second chapter the book talks about fingerspelling (also called manual alphabets). It runs through a variety of systems, including the earliest systems used in Chinese. I’ve scanned the charts (click through to the Flickr page for larger size), which you see below.
First up is the two-handed British fingerspelling system, which was devised around 1790.
Then comes the one-handed American fingerspelling system. I remember learning this one when I was around 10.
There’s a Russian system as well.
Don’t forget Japanese! (And try not to be offended by せ.)
Chinese fingerspelling started well before pinyin, so the first system was based on Visible Speech, a system of phonetic notation devised by Alexander Melville Bell (father of Alexander Graham Bell). This Chinese fingerspelling system was called 赖恩手势.
If you compare similar sounds, such as B and P or D and T you can see how one detail holds phonetic meaning. In those cases, a movement of the thumb signifies aspiration. This is pretty cool from a linguistic perspective, although probably not the most practical system, because P and T (or B and D, or B and M, etc.) look pretty hard to tell apart!
Below you can see how the fingerspelling signs combine to make syllables (spelled on the chart in zhuyin).
To help cope with the problems of the above system, a zhuyin (注音 fingerspelling system was developed in 1930.
Following the adoption of pinyin, a corresponding pinyin fingerspelling system became official in the PRC in 1963.
Note the similarities and differences between pinyin fingerspelling and American fingerspelling.
I’m finding this book really interesting. In case you’re wondering, even when you get beyond spelling systems, sign language is not at all universal. I’ll be posting more about Chinese sign language and its distinctive features soon.