American Sign Language

American Sign Language Alphabet and Numbers

This page contains information on American Sign Language, also known as ASL for short. It includes topics such as what it is, its history, its use in society, as well as challenges and controversy.

At the bottom of the page there is also a handy letters and numbers chart which shows you how to make the hand shapes which represent numbers and the letters of the alphabet in American Sign Language.

Two people using sign language

What is American Sign Language?

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language that is used predominantly by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the United States and Canada. It is a complete language with its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

Unlike other forms of sign language used around the world, ASL has developed independently and has its own unique features.

In this article, we will explore the history of ASL, its features, and its use in contemporary society.

History of American Sign Language

American Sign Language has a rich history that dates back to the early 19th century.

The first American school for the deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817 by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc. Gallaudet was inspired to create a school for the deaf after meeting a young deaf girl named Alice Cogswell.

Gallaudet and Clerc developed a system of sign language that was based on French Sign Language, but adapted for the American context.

ASL evolved over the years as more deaf people migrated to the United States and brought their own regional signs and dialects. By the early 20th century, ASL had become a distinct language with its own grammar and vocabulary. However, ASL was not officially recognized as a language until the 1960s, when linguists began studying it and advocating for its recognition.

Features of American Sign Language

ASL is a visual language that uses hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning. Unlike spoken languages, ASL does not have a written form, and it relies heavily on visual cues and context.

Below are some features of ASL:

Handshape: One of the most distinctive features of ASL is its use of handshapes to convey meaning. There are over 40 handshapes in ASL, and each handshape corresponds to a specific concept or idea.

For example, the handshape for the letter "A" is used to indicate the concept of "going," while the handshape for the letter "B" is used to indicate the concept of "big."

Facial Expressions: Facial expressions play an important role in ASL, as they convey emotion and tone. For example, a raised eyebrow can indicate a question, while a furrowed brow can indicate frustration or anger.

Non-Manual Markers: ASL also uses non-manual markers, such as head nodding and shoulder raising, to convey meaning. These markers help to clarify the speaker's intent and add emphasis to the message.

Grammar: ASL has its own unique grammar and syntax. For example, the word order in ASL is different from English. ASL sentences follow a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order, while English sentences follow a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) order. ASL also uses facial expressions and body language to indicate tense, negation, and other grammatical concepts.

Use of American Sign Language in Contemporary Society

Today, ASL is widely used in the United States and Canada, and it has become an important part of deaf culture. ASL is used in a variety of contexts, including education, entertainment, and social interaction.

Education: ASL is used as the primary language of instruction in many schools for the deaf. It is also used in mainstream schools as a support for deaf students who use ASL as their primary language.

Entertainment: ASL is used in a variety of entertainment contexts, including theater, television, and film. Many deaf actors and actresses have made their mark in the entertainment industry, and ASL interpretation is often provided for live performances, broadcasts and movies in cinemas.

Social Interaction: American Sign Language is used by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to communicate with one another. It is also used by hearing individuals who have learned ASL as a second language, or who have a personal or professional connection to the deaf community.

ASL has also become a popular language to learn among those who are interested in learning about deaf culture, or who want to communicate with deaf friends or family members.

One of the most notable uses of ASL in contemporary society is in the realm of advocacy and activism. Deaf activists have used ASL as a means of protest and communication, particularly in the realm of social justice. For example, the "Deaf President Now" movement of 1988, which resulted in the appointment of the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, was largely driven by ASL-empowered protests and rallies.

ASL has also played an important role in the fight for accessibility and inclusion. Many businesses and organizations now offer ASL interpretation services for their deaf or hard-of-hearing customers or employees. In addition, ASL interpreters are often present at public events such as concerts, speeches, and conferences to ensure that deaf individuals can fully participate in these activities.

Challenges and Controversies in American Sign Language

Despite its widespread use and recognition, ASL still faces a number of challenges and controversies.

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of accessibility in certain contexts. For example, many online videos and other forms of digital content do not include ASL interpretation, making them inaccessible to the deaf community. Similarly, some schools and universities do not offer ASL classes or support for deaf students, which can limit educational opportunities for the deaf community.

Another controversy surrounding ASL is the question of whether it should be considered a separate language or a dialect of English. While many linguists and members of the deaf community argue that ASL is a distinct language with its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, others contend that it is simply a visual representation of English and should not be treated as a separate language.

There are also controversies surrounding the use of technology to aid in communication. Some members of the deaf community believe that relying too heavily on technology, such as cochlear implants or speech-to-text software, can be harmful to deaf culture and language. Others argue that technology can be a valuable tool for deaf individuals to communicate with hearing individuals and to participate fully in society.


American Sign Language is a rich and complex language that plays an important role in the lives of millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in the United States and Canada. Its unique features and grammar make it a fascinating language to learn and study, and its use in contemporary society has paved the way for greater accessibility, inclusion, and understanding for the deaf community.

While ASL still faces challenges and controversies, its continued recognition and acceptance as a distinct language is a testament to the resilience and strength of the deaf community.

Letters and Numbers

Below is a table of the hand and finger shapes for the alphabet and numbers in American Sign Language:

Sign Language Alphabet
Sign Language Alphabet
Sign Language Alphabet
Sign Language Alphabet
Sign Language Alphabet

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Useful Links

  • National Association of the Deaf
  • National Deaf Center
  • American Sign Language Dictionary