The manual alphabet that we use to fingerspell in American Sign Language (ASL) consists of 26 different handshapes that correspond to letters of the English alphabet. The handshapes were originally taken from a book of prayers written by a Franciscan monk, Melchor Yebra. Each letter of the alphabet had a prayer associated with it; if a monk was too ill to recite the prayer, he could indicate his prayer intent by making the corresponding handshape (Lane, 1984). Use of the handshapes to form whole words and messages evolved, allowing monks to communicate without violating their vows of silence (Schein, 1984). The concept of a handshape representation of letters of the alphabet was then borrowed for use in education the deaf at the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, where Laurent Clerc was a pupil and an instructor. In 1817, when he and Thomas Gallaudet established the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, in Hartford, Connecticut, fingerspelling was an integral component of signed language.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Rochester Method of educating deaf students required both teachers and students to speak English and fingerspell each word simultaneously. Everything from daily lessons to the school play was done this way.
While fingerspelling in other countries is not used in all sign languages to the same extent it is used in American Sign Language (ASL), most national sign languages have developed some kind of fingerspelled alphabet. One-handed or two- handed, most of these alphabets correspond to the alphabet of the spoken or written language used in that country.
Fingerspelling, as used in the United States, is a direct, letter-by-letter representation of English words. As an incorporated component of sign language communication, fingerspelling has various but specific uses within ASL. (Cartwright and Bahleda, 2002).