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Most signers in the Auslan-using community use both fingerspelling and signs as part of their communication. Fingerspelling is a kind of language-mixing.

Each fingerspelled letter (eg, the letter -A- or -Q-i) is like an Auslan sign, but it stands for the letter of an English word. When a signer switches between using Auslan signs and fingerspelling English words, it is like mixing two languages together. Language mixing is normal in all bilingual communities and is very common all over the world.

Recently, I completed a small research project on fingerspelling in Auslan, working with Trevor Johnston, Della Goswell and Darlene Thornton. This is part of the "Sociolinguistic Variation in Auslan" project at Macquarie University. We filmed 205 deaf men and women, aged 15 to 89, from Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane. All these people began to sign before the age of 7, and most had lived in their home towns for 10 years or longer. We videotaped them in conversations with each other. No hearing people were present during the filming.

In order to look at how the deaf people in our research project used fingerspelling, we collected short sentences from the videotapes. We created a database of 2,667 short sentences. These sentences included 771 examples of fingerspelling.

So why is fingerspelling used by these deaf people? Often, signers will use fingerspelling for the names of people (eg, D-A-N-I-E-L, S-H-A-R-O-N) or places (eg, C-A-N-O-W-I-N-D-R-A, V-A-N-U-A-T-U). They will fingerspell English words for meanings that do not have an Auslan sign, such as medical terminology (eg, L-I-P-O-S-U-C-T-I-O-N, A-N-T-I-B-O-D-Y). This does not mean that it is not possible to express these ideas in Auslan, but simply that there is no widely-accepted sign. Sometimes fingerspelling follows an Auslan sign that has the same meaning (eg, one signer used the sign SOCCER then fingerspelled S-O-C-C-E-R), perhaps because the signer is not sure if the other person knows the Auslan sign or because they want to make sure their meaning is clear. In some cases, fingerspelling may be used instead of a sign for emphasis (eg, N-O-W). In other cases, signers fingerspell whole English sentences (eg, D-O Y-O-U R-E-M-E-M-B-E-R) perhaps because they prefer to use English rather than Auslan in this situation.

Many of the words fingerspelled have widely-used Auslan signs (eg, A-L-A-R-M, B-L-O-O-D, C-O-U-N-T-R-Y, D-I-S-A-P-P-O-I-N-T, E-X-A-M, F-E-E-L etc). We do not know yet why this happens, but it shows that signers will often fingerspell an English word even if an Auslan sign exists - ie, some signers will prefer to use fingerspelled English words even when they are talking to other deaf people.

How much fingerspelling is used by the deaf people in our study? We found that their signing included about 10% fingerspelling on average, including both common signs based on a single letter such as DAUGHTER (D-D), as well as fully fingerspelled words (eg, H-Y-P-E-R-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-L). The percentage of fingerspelling used by younger and older deaf people was different, however. Deaf people aged 15-30 used only 5% fingerspelling. Deaf people aged 31-50 used 6% fingerspelling, while those aged 51-70 used 9%. Those aged 71-89 used the highest percentage: 14%.

Our study did not find any difference between the amount of fingerspelling used by deaf men and women, or between working class deaf people (eg, those who work in manual jobs) or middle class deaf people (eg, those who work in professional jobs). There was also no significant difference between people who had deaf parents and those who had hearing parents. Interestingly, we did find that the deaf people in our study from Melbourne and Brisbane used slightly more fingerspelling than the deaf people from Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. We are not sure why, but the difference was not very large.

The most common type of words fingerspelled were common nouns (ie, the names of common objects, such as U-N-I-T, T-U-L-I-P, S-A-U-C-E-P-A-N, R-A-T, and P-R-I-N-T-E-R). Proper names (ie, names of people and places) were the next most common, followed by grammatical words (eg, O-R, A-N-D, O-F). There were few fingerspelled verbs. People aged over 50 fingerspelled many more common nouns than those under 50. The ten most common fingerspelled words and signs based on fingerspelling were F-F ('father'), S-O, T-O, Y ('year'), I-F, M-M ('mother'), B-U-T, Q-Q ('Queensland'), D-O, and A-T.

We hope in the near future to do more research into this topic, because there is much more to learn about how fingerspelling is used in the Australian deaf community.

In this article, I use words in capital letters to represent signs (eg SOCCER), and words in capital letters with hyphens to represent fingerspelling (eg S-O-C-C-E-R).

Article written by Dr Adam Schembri
Dr Schembri is one of Australia's best known sign language linguists. This article was written for Deaf Australia (formerly AAD).

Information provided by Deaf Australia Inc. Reproduced with permission.
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08-Nov-2015 4:47 PM (AEST)