Tutorial 6a: Numeracy and Fingerspelling

We’ll soon be talking about how to write purely sign language handshapes, but firstly, an aside about how we write numbers and fingerspelling in Hippotext.

In written texts, we can borrow words from other languages by simply writing them in the text, as they’re spelled in the foreign language. The writer usually puts the foreign word or phrase in italics (or underlines it, in handwriting):

It has a certain Je ne sais quoi, wouldn’t you say?

In Hippotext, we do exactly the same (don’t worry if you can’t read this just yet!):

Q31biqq 2fo Yeovil.

This means “I live in Yeovil”, and since I don’t know a sign for Yeovil, I’ve just written it in English. The implication is that if this were signed, the signer would resort to fingerspelling or similar oral devices to sign ‘Yeovil’.

Some signs have special fingerspelling patterns or use a handshape borrowed from the fingerspelling alphabet. In BSL, for example, ‘month’ is usully signed simply by fingerspelling the letter ‘m’. In Hippotext, we indicate a letter from the fingerspelling alphabet by writing the letter ‘d’ before it. So we can write month simply as ‘dm’.

If there is more than one fingerspelling letter, it’s best to capitalise the fingerspelled letters. This makes it possible to see where the fingerspelling ends, and fingerspelling is often used for abbreviations, which are often capitalised. So for mother, father, daughter in BSL we can write dMM, dFF, dDD. With capitalised fingerspelling it can be quite acceptable to drop the ‘d’, so writing MM, FF and DD.

Fingerspelled handshapes are often more usual in languages with one-handed fingerspelling, and may even follow paths in the air. One ASL sign for Florida, for example, is dFLAjuc (or FLAjuc if you’d rather drop the d), signing the letters FLA in a circular path.

When we write the letter ‘d’ followed by a number, this means that the handshape used is the handshape that represents that number. This can vary from dialect to dialect. In places like Somerset and Wales, for example, the number 7 is signed with the ring finger and pinkie extended, while from Dorset to London it’s signed with the thumb and index finger extended. Those are written as ‘d7’ no matter what your dialect.

So to write the sign for “seven years old”, we write d7bso (handshape for the number seven, fingerpads near nose, hand moves forwards) no matter which dialect we use. We can also extend this artificially and write d17bso or d45bso, no matter how these are actually signed in the writer’s or readers’ dialects.

Here’s an exercise. Remember that while ‘s’ represents the nose, ‘u’ represents the chin. How would you write £5 in BSL? How would you write £25? Having asked this, it’s also acceptable to use the ‘£’ and just write £5 or £25 in BSL!

— Sandy Fleming


Tutorial 6: Two-Handed Signs

The most usual pattern for a one-handed sign is HIPO, meaning Hand, Interaction, Path, Other. The Hand is always the first thing we write, but the other three things are written in whatever order the sign requires, and can be missed out or repeated.

For a two-handed sign, we do exactly the same thing for the passive hand, as well as the active hand. We write the two hands separated by an apostrophe. The passive hand comes first (whether you’re right-handed or left-handed, the passive hand always comes first):

u1’1ttor TRY/ATTEMPT (palm down, passive-hand index finger, active-hand index finger thumbside of hand touches thumbside of hand, active hand moves forward repeatedly).

The u at the start of the passive Hand here tells us that the passive hand is palm down and the 1 tells us that the index finger is extended. Then we have tt as the Interaction: the thumbside of the active hand touches the thumbside of the passive hand. And then we have the Path: o to say that the hand moves forward and r to say that this is repeated.

We try not to duplicate the same information in both hands. When the active hand part touches a part of the face, body, or passive hand, we consider the opposite part of the hand (in this case the blade), to be distant from the touched part. So in this case the fact that the passive palm is downwards means that the active palm is downwards too.

Something else that’s very important is that the passive hand doesn’t move, or if it does, it moves only to mimic the active hand in some way. Hippotext is designed to take advantage of this, so that we don’t normally write passive hand movements. Paths and Interactions are movements (the Interaction involves a movement of the hand towards the part of the body touched), so we normally write only the Hand on the passive part of the word. This is why we don’t write tt on the passive side in u1’1ttor.

Now let’s write a very similar sign:

‘u1jtt SAME (mirror sign, palms down, index finder handshapes move inwards until thumbsides of hands touch).

Here, we’ve written an apostrophe, but left out the passive hand. This means that the sign is symmetric, as if reflected in a mirror running down the middle of the body, in the way illustrated by the comedian Harry Worth in his BBC television series. As you see, the passive hand is merely mimicking the active hand: it doesn’t have a written movement of its own.

We can also write two apostrophes at the beginning of a word to indicate a cyclic or see-saw sign. These are signs where the passive hand mimics the active hand by staying on the opposite side of the mid-point between the hands:

”nbuvr BALANCE/JUDGEMENT (see-saw sign, palms up, flat hand, active hand moves down and up repeatedly).

The letter v written after something in Hippotext generally means to reverse the thing. So the movement is downwards, which reverses to upwards, then the r says that this repeats. So vr generally gives a wagging motion.

”wxoucr I SIGN TO YOU (cyclic sign, spread hand, curve forwards and downwards and continue to complete full circle, repeat).

As always, ou means that the hand moves forward and downwards in a smooth curve. Adding a c after this means that the hand keeps moving until it completes the circle which has been started by ou.

As an exercise, try reading or describing the following signs: ‘nwxojcr, ”aoucr.

— Sandy Fleming

Tutorial 5: The Body

We’ve seen how to write parts of the head and parts of the hand, and how we can write an Interaction by writing a hand part followed by the head part that it touches (or just comes near). Now we’re going to learn the letters we use for the parts of the body. These are used just like the head parts: we write one after a hand part to say which part of the body it touches.As you see, there aren’t that many to learn. As for the head and face, we don’t worry which side of the body these are on, except for the shoulders, for which we use the letters i and j. The above diagram shows i and j for right-handed signing. If you sign left-handedly, the i and j will need to be switched round, as for the i and j of the direction letters. Whether you’re left-handed or right-handed, the i refers to this shoulder (the one on the side of the body nearest the active hand) and the j refers to that shoulder (the one on the opposite side of the body from the active hand).

Most signs are made on the front of the upper body, but there are three others not shown in the diagram: the side of the body, the front of the thigh, and the lower leg. The full list is:

g lower leg
i this shoulder (usually the front of the shoulder)
j that shoulder (usually the front of the shoulder)
o chest
p upper arm
q forearm
r side of body (hip)
v neck
x back
y front of thigh

I wouldn’t be surprised if you feel that this is not enough: where is the stomach, for example? Later we’ll learn simple ways of extending the number of surfaces we can write, and everything will be covered.

Now you can write signs in which the hand meets with parts of the body, for example:

ado MINE (fist, palm near chest);
bdor LIKE (flat hand, palm taps chest).

I need to clarify a few points about these. Notice how in ado, the palm is facing the chest but can’t physically touch it. This doesn’t stop us from writing it and being able to read the meaning clearly. In Hippotext, we write the hand part which it would be if the hand were the flat hand, just as we do for hand configurations.

Many signers will sign bdor using the spread hand, rather than the flat hand (b). Signing is usually performed in a relaxed manner, so that the hand may be held relaxed with the fingers not firmly together. Where a sign is seen to be variously signed with the flat or spread hand, we prefer to write the flat hand (b).

Can you read the following signs: btj, nbliu? If you don’t know BSL, try to write out descriptions of how the signs are executed.

— Sandy Fleming

Tutorial 4: How to Cheat (a little bit!)

In earlier tutorials we described three things we can use to define parts of signs:

  • the Hand (H), in which we write the hand/arm configuration followed by the handshape;
  • the Interaction (I), in which we write the hand part and the head or body part which it touches;
  • the Path (P), in which we write direction letters to describe a smoothly curving path through space.

There’s one more thing, which is the last thing we need to fully describe a one-handed sign. We call this ‘Other’ (or ‘O’, for short), because it can be used to write anything that is awkward or impossible to write with the other three things. So a full manual sign is made of four parts: Hand, Interaction, Path, Other. As always, we can write these using just their initial letter, and a typical ordering for these in a sign is HIPO… which is why I’ve called the writing system Hippotext!

As for other orderings, the Hand is always written first, the others can be written in whatever order is best for the sign. So HIPO, HIP, HI, HP, HPI, HOI and suchlike are all orderings you might find yourself using.

The Other elements are recognisable because they’re written as double letters. We have the following:

  • qq forearm twists repeatedly;
  • rr hand flaps repeatedly from the wrist;
  • vv stress (sign is executed with muscular stress).

Stress (vv) is a feature of sign languages which isn’t covered by the H, I or P elements, so we need an ‘Other’ way of writing it: ‘buvv MUST (two flat hands, stressed downwards movement).

For the other two, qq and rr, it takes four letters to write these using H, I and P, but more importantly, it takes a lot of thought to compose them correctly. Since these are both natural and easily-recognisable features of sign languages, we give them this special Other notation to make them easy to write and think about:

uarr YES (palm down, fist, hand flaps at the wrist);

uonaqq NO (palm down, fingers forward, forearm up, fist, forearm twists repeatedly).

Here’s an exercise. In BSL you might try to get the attention of someone away in front of you by stretching out your arm ahead of you with the palm down, and flapping your hand. You’d be using the w handshape, but with the thumb extended. Can you write this? Take your time and think carefully about each part of it.

We’ve now covered all the basics of writing one-handed signs in Hippotext. To complete our knowledge we will need to learn how to write two-handed signs, letters for body parts and how to create more handshapes from the basic ones we already know.

— Sandy Fleming

Tutorial 3: Hands Moving through Space

In the previous two tutorials we showed how to configure the hand and arm, and to specify a handshape for the sign. We also showed how to add an interaction between a part of the hand and the part of the face or head (but later we will extend this to the whole body). We call the hand/arm/handshape configuration the Hand (with a capital H). We call the hand part to body part diphthong an Interaction (with a capital I).

I’d like to stress that the Hand can only occur once in a one-handed sign. But the Interaction can occur as often as you want. An example of a BSL sign with two interactions is HEARING. This could be described as “First finger pad touches ear, then the thumbside taps against the mouth”. This is written as 1batmr, meaning HEARING. It’s a handshape followed by two interactions: 1 ba tmr. When we write the letter r after something, it means that it’s repeated. So tm (thumb side of hand touches mouth) is repeated, causing it to tap against the mouth.

Once the hand has been written, we can use direction letters again, but now they will mean the direction in which the hand moves through space (downwards, upwards, forwards, backwards, outwards, inwards). We call this the Path, with a capital P. Consider the BSL sign for CLAIM, which could be described as “palm backwards, fingers and forearm upwards, flat hand moves forwards and downwards”. So this can be written snnbou.

Notice that when we use more than one direction letter together in the Path, they blend into a smooth curve. The hand orientation doesn’t stay fixed, it follows the curve:

It’s very usual to see signs which have an interaction followed by a forwards path:

SEE 1beo (1 be o: the index finger pad is near the eye and moves forwards)
SAY 1bmo (1 bm o: the index finger pad is near the mouth and moves forwards)

Signs like these are directional and so might be written with other directions than straight forwards, some directions being diagonal. We will see later how to write diagonal directions.

We might also see the opposite:

SEE-ME 1sbe (1 s be: the index finger pad moves backwards to near the eye)
SAY-TO-ME 1sbm (1 s bm: the index finger pad moves backwards to the mouth)

We’ve covered quite a lot of ground in those three short tutorials. Most of what we write in sign uses only the Hand, Interaction and Path, and even facial expression and body language use the same letters in only a slightly different way. In subsequent tutorials, we’ll keep refining and extending these principles until we can write all the signs we need.

As an exercise, try reading the following signs and writing their description (for the purposes of this exercise, it doesn’t matter if you know BSL or if you understand the meaning of the sign, just try to see how it’s executed): bde, adur, J1tn (hints: the first letter or numeral that isn’t a direction letter will be the handshape; remember that the letter r after something means the thing is repeated).

Can you write the BSL sign for EASY in Hippotext (index fingertip taps against cheek)?

— Sandy Fleming

Tutorial 2: Writing Simple Signs

After the arm configuration, we write the handshape. Basic handshapes (from which we can easily create many more, as we shall see) are:This means that the handshape is written in Hippotext by writing the letter. So if we write jnnoa, we’re indicating that the palm, fingers, forearm and upper arm are directed inwards, upwards, upwards and forwards respectively and that the handshape is the fist (all fingers and thumb tucked in).

This isn’t usually enough to write a meaningful sign. Having written everything about the hand, we then need to add a movement of some sort. Take the BSL sign for THANK-YOU, for instance. This could be described as, ‘Flat hand, finger pads touch the chin, hand moves forward.’ To write this, we’ll need to know how to write parts of the hand (for the finger pads) and parts of the head (for the chin). We use the following letters:

and to clarify:

  • Hand Parts
    b finger pads
    d palm
    f fingertips
    h wrist
    k back of hand
    l blade of hand
    t thumb side of hand
  • Head Parts
    a ear
    e eye
    c cheek
    m mouth
    n brow or temple
    s nose
    u chin
    w crown (top of head)
    z back of head

This is a lot of new letters to learn (there’s no need to learn them all at once: just print or draw the picture for reference), but some of them work as memory aids. For example, a looks a bit like an ear, e looks a bit like an eye, and so on. Notice, too, that the hand parts are all ‘tall’ letters. This is helpful for seeing the structure of a word when reading.

Now if we want to write the sign for THANK-YOU, we can go ahead and write bbuo. This means “flat hand (b), finger pads touch chin (bu), hand moves forward. Notice how after the hand is written, any direction letters written describe the direction in which the hand is moving.

You might be wondering where the hand/arm configuration went. Shouldn’t we write jnn at the beginning of the sign to say that the palm is pointing inwards, and the fingers and forearm upwards? In fact we don’t: touching the chin with the finger pads naturally brings the hand and arm into this position, so we don’t need to write that.

Try this exercise.

What would you say the BSL sign btn means? Write a description of how it is executed.

— Sandy Fleming

Tutorial 1: Hand and Arm Configuration

We’ll start by looking at one-handed signs. We need six letters to indicate directions in space.

The six directions in space, for right and left handers..

Notice that the diagram for left-handed signers is slightly different from that for right-handed signers. This ensures that signs are spelled the same whichever way they’re signed. You only need to learn one diagram, depending on whether you sign right or left handedly.

The diagram shows that:

  • we write n to mean upwards;
  • we write u to mean downwards;
  • we write o to mean forwards;
  • we write s to mean backwards;
  • we write i to mean outwards;
  • we write j to mean inwards.

The first letter in a word indicates the direction in which the palm is facing. So if we write u, for example, it means the palm is facing downwards.

The second letter you can write in a word is the direction in which the fingers are pointing. Or rather, the direction in which the fingers would be pointing if the handshape were the flat handshape, with fingers extended.

The third thing we can write is the direction in which the forearm is pointing. So jnn means that the palm faces inwards, the fingers point upwards and the forearm also points upwards.

You may find this predictable now, but the fourth thing you can write is the direction in which the upper arm is pointing. So if we write joou, it means that the palm is facing inwards, the fingers forwards, the forearm forwards and the upper arm downwards. This is a fairly natural position to hold the arms and hands for signing (in practice, the hands will be held more inwards and upwards but we don’t try to write this). We start writing the hand/arm configuration with the palm direction, and stop when the remaining letters are just the natural position. So you’d write on for palm forwards and fingers upwards (with forearm forwards and upper arm downwards, so that they’re not written).

In practice, most signs don’t need the hand/arm configuration to be written, and most others only need one or two letters of it, so it’s easy to deal with.

As an exercise, try writing the hand/arm (or wing!) configuration you’d need to express the pose of The Angel of the North, as in the picture below. You will need all four letters!

Angel of the North
By ArdfernOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

— Sandy Fleming

A Truth Universally Acknowledged

You might like to see what Hippotext looks like before starting to learn it. Here’s the opening to Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

And here it is in BSL, written using Hippotext:

Snp’supioc axtn n’mld, eeoi pygduxu oi nc2qvyu mliu, emgvv esu mdouo u’pyvdks.

The spellings look random, but they’re actually well-structured. We’ll start learning all about them in the posts yet to come. For now, I’ll just explain the more general ideas about the text.

You’ll notice that the punctuation is as in English: the sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, and commas are used to indicate pauses. Nothing new there.

When we see an apostrophe in a word, it means that this is a two-handed sign. The passive hand comes before the apostrophe, the active hand after (by active hand we mean the hand that you habitually sign one-handed signs with, the passive hand being the other hand).

You’ll have noticed the numeral 2 being written in one sign. In this case, it chooses which fingers are used to create the handshape for the sign, 2 being the first two fingers (index and middle).

Words beginning with the letter e are facial expression and body language. As you see, we have three such in this sentence. We only write such words where they’re really needed, and in this case the first indicates where the man (the one who is single and rich) is located in space, the second and third the positive insistence that the man wants a wife.

You’ll be starting to see that as long as you can write English and sign BSL, the generalities of Hippotext are quite familiar to you. All you really have to learn is how to spell the signs. In the forthcoming posts, I’ll explain all of that.

— Sandy Fleming

Nothing New Under the Sign

Hippotext is a writing system for sign languages which I’ve developed over a number of years. In the BSL version at least, it uses only the 26 letters of the English alphabet, punctuation as in English, and sometimes numerals. It may seem odd writing numerals as letters, but this approach is natural to sign languages. A sign may involve a handshape with three fingers, the shape of a camel with two humps, or the two dangling ends of a student’s scarf, in which case the number is likely to be written into the words of the text.

Restricting ourselves to the same letters, numerals and punctuation of the associated spoken language means that there are no new characters to learn, children only need to learn one alphabet and their numbers for both the signed and the spoken language, and you can use social media to communicate in sign languages without any special software. The wheel is not reinvented.

Signs were written down long before Stokoe put forward his compelling arguments in favour of sign languages being real languages. In ‘Indian Sign Language’ (fifth edition, 1931) William Tomkins lists the signs of Plains Talk with illustrations and a textual description. For example:

MULE: Hold extended hands alongside of the ears, palms to front, fingers pointing upwards; by wrist action move hands forwards and back to represent their motion.

This description (and the illustration) is missing only one thing: do the hands move alternately or in unison? I’ll assume in unison.

The descriptions used by Tomkins are very like the descriptions that students write down in sign classes today to remind them of the signs. These are written without prior training, as if such descriptions were somehow obvious or natural, and this is the sort of thing that Hippotext spellings are made of.

In Hippotext, an apostrophe at the start of a word means that the hands move in unison, the sign perfectly symmetrical as if there were a mirror running down the middle of the body. Other things we can write in Hippotext are:

  • b flat hand with fingers together;
  • t thumb side of hand;
  • n brow or temples;
  • o forwards;
  • s backwards;
  • p wrist fixed in space.

So we can write Tomkins’s description as:


This is how we write MULE, as described by Tomkins, though we’ve used temples where he writes ears as this seems more like the sign illustrated.

Notice that while Tomkins is careful to describe the direction in which the palms and fingers point, the sign seems clear enough without it, although we can write such information in Hippotext when we want to.

I hope I’ve been able to show that Hippotext doesn’t make a lot of demands on those learning it. It uses a familiar alphabet to turn familiar descriptions of signs into words that never get too long compared to those written for spoken languages. So if you wanted to write a whole book in sign or translate a whole novel, it would use no more paper (or screen space) than the same thing in English.

— Sandy Fleming