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


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