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