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