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In spoken languages, words are formed by using the mouth and the voice. In signed languages, words are formed by using specific parts of the hands. Each letter has its own sign, and these signs are in turn used to form other signs. There are also many words that are formed by fingerspelling, meaning spelling the word by signing each letter. Fingerspelling is mainly used to specify a person’s name, brand or place name, and used should there be no existing sign for it. Note how “Jane” and “Roberto” are all fingerspelled in the following sentences:

My name is Jane.

My name is Roberto.

Place names are often abbreviated when fingerspelling, so, “New York City” is abbreviated to “NYC” and “Los Angeles” becomes “LA.” There are also signs for specific cities, so you won’t always be using fingerspelling with place names.

I’m from Chicago.

There are do’s and don’t’s when it comes to fingerspelling. When fingerspelling, do not mouth each letter; instead you will mouth the complete word. Plus, try not to bounce your hand while spelling! If you are spelling two words, pause a bit between the words. Fingerspelling is a skill that will take time to produce and read.

As we said before, many of the letters of the alphabet are used as handshapes in forming other signs. We’ll look at how this works in the next section.