The Phonetics of Fingerspelling by Sherman Wilcox (review)
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REVIEW: The Phonetics of Fingerspelling, by Sherman Wilcox. [Studies in Speech Pathology & Clinical Linguistics, Vol 4.] Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co. 1992. vi &108 pp. Cloth. (US) ISBN: 155619 390 4.Price: $38. Fingerspelling, the representation of conventional English orthography by a rapid sequence of alphabet handhapes, for far too long has been the stepchild in the cinders when it comes to catching the attention ofresearchers. Fingerspelling has also been too little studied as a necessary skill that students of ASL and even interpreters in training have great difficulty mastering. In The Phonetics of FingerspellingSherman Wilcox corrects these oversights and does more besides. He provides excellent advice for teachers and for students who want to understand as well as produce fingerspelling. He focuses sophisticated phonetic methods on this system of manual communication, but he also opens up a most promising avenue of approach to the whole matter of language theory. He is interested-as the next to last two sentences of the book put it-in how "language is understood" ... not as a mapping between meanings and sounds or meanings and signs, but more generally as a mapping between intentions and actions. In both signed and spoken languages, human actions produce gestures which communicate intentions. Wilcox begins with a review of the literature and a careful look at past and current descriptions of sign languages, as well as of fingerspelling systems. In the first chapter he argues that languages may be spoken or written or signed, but whatever mode of expression is used, languages remain languages. Fingerspelled words, widely used by signers in sentences of ASL, can be and often are used to express English structures. But, from the viewpoint of one studying language as gesture-the author's viewpoint throughout-whether fingerpelling is used to represent English words or "loan signs" (Battison 1978) of ASL, it is a signed language. That is, fingerspelling is a system of physical @1992 Linstok Press, Inc. ISSN 0302-1475 Review: WCS acts used to represent. They are acts that must be seen and properly looked if one is to understand what they represent. After reporting a revealing study of fingerspelling learners, Wilcox destroys the popular but outmoded "cipher model," which assumes that fingerspelling is presenting a sequence of distinctive , contrasting handshapes-static targets that represent letters of the English alphabet. He examines earlier research, especially by Akamatsu (1982, 1985), which rejects the cipher model, and finds Akamatsu's notion of a "movement envelope" more accurately describes what is sent and received (by hands and eyes) than does a series of static target handshapes. The difficulty is, however, that movement envelopes, while more satisfactory than a handshape-for-letter substitution code, are subjective things at best. Akamatsu's three-dimensional drawings of the series of changing rough outlines of the hand's shape would have two dimensions if applied to writing: e.g. a movement envelope is something like the crooked outline that could be drawn to enclose the printed word hop, which is higher than ordinary at first and lower than ordinary at the end. Such an outline really can be drawn around high, not just imagined, but the box or "envelope " around a fingerspelled word must be purely imaginary, for its shape changes rapidly as the hand changes configuration and moves. To disprove the cipher model and so support the envelope model, Wilcox turns to techniques and methods used by phonetic research that examines the "gestures" of speech, for there is a body of work now that does not stop with listening to speakers but reaches into the vocal tract to examine not only what within it is acting to produce the sounds of speech but also how these actions-these gestures-are precisely coordinated. The phenomena to be studied are extremely complex, but Wilcox defines the problem simply by quoting physicists in this paragraph on page 25: "Motion may be defined as a continuous change of position " (Sears & Zemansky, 1949: 51). "Kinematics is the study of the motion of an object without regard to the forces acting on it; the study of motions which considers the forces which cause the object's motion is called dynamics" (Meirovitch, 1985). SLS 77 Winter 1992...


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