A List of Sign Lists.

Compiled by Rebecca Lucas.



I have taken a fairly generalist approach to 'sign lists,' including manual alphabets and their related memory aides which may never have been used for communication. However, this is because fingerspelling can form a large part of modern-day conversations in sign languages, and it appears that one-handed alphabets have been written about for quite some time.

8th Century

De Computo vel Loquela Digitorum

The Northumbrian Venerable Bede, wrote about the use of finger calculus, and introduced the idea of a substitution cypher, so numbers could also represent letters. Although there is no evidence that this idea was ever used in reality, and was likely just an intellectual exercise, Bragg (1997) notes that this is the first description of a finger alphabet.
It is surprisingly difficult to find accurate illustrations of Bede's system prior to Pacioli in the fifteenth century, possibly because the scribes copying out the manuscript did not fully understand what they were doing (Richter Sherman, 2000; 162-3). An example of such confusing artwork is the 11th century Tegrimi Compactus.

  • Bede, and Wallis, Faith [trans.] The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1999)
  • Bede's Finger Alphabet [142kb PDF]. Includes a chart of the Greek letters, the numbers they correspond to, and an illustration from Pacioli's Summa de arithmetica.
  • Bede's Latin Finger Alphabet [265kb PDF]. A more detailed explanation, and photos of the 23 handshapes, that would make up the Latin manual alphabet.
  • 9th century manuscript from the St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek (St. Gallen Monastary Library) MS Cod. Sang. 251
    Images and description in German at The Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland
  • 9-10th century manuscript from the St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek MS Cod. Sang. 459
    Images and description at The Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland
  • Possible 11th century manuscript from St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek MS 248.
    Images and description at The Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland
  • 11th century (ca. 1018-1032) finger-reckoning. From The Tegrimi Compactus Manuscript. M.925. Fol 38r-39r.
    Images and description available through the Morgan Pierpont Library.
  • A Slovenian webpage with a scan of a 13th century manuscript from the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal in Lisbon.

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10th Century

The Guidonian Hand

Traditionally ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo, this mnemonic device was devised to help choir singers to sight sing.
According to Ricao (2004-6), in a document handwritten by Pedro Ponce de León, he described his manual alphabet as being adapted from this mnemonic method, pointing at joints of the hand to indicate letters. Ponce also proscribed that students of his system should write the letters of the alphabet on their finger-joints (Plann, 1992).
This sounds similar to the arthrologie system mentioned by John Bulwer (1648) or the dactylology system described by George Dalgarno (1680)(Kyle, Woll, Pullen and Maddix 1985; 50). However, unlike Ponce's system, the connection to the Guidonian hand method is unclear.

  • For an example of the Guidonian Hand in use, see this demonstration of the mnemonic by Professor William Mahrt.
  • The exhibition catalogue Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (see the bibliography at the end of this page) has numerous reproductions of images of hands annotated with this mnemonic.

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11th Century


A mid-11th century sign list, known as Monasteriales Indicia, Monasterialia Indicia or Cotton.Tiberius.A.iii. depending on your source, this seems to be one of the best-studied and analysed sign lists from Canterbury, England. Contains 127 signs.

Hirsau Sign Lexicon

Written by William of Hirsau, in the late 11th century, it is the longest, with 359 signs, of the surviving Cluniac MSL sign lists.

  • Scott G. Bruce Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism (Cambridge: CUP 2007)
  • Scott G. Bruce Uttering no human sound: Silence and sign language in western medieval monasticism. [PhD Thesis] (Ann Arbor, Mich. : U.M.I. 2000)
  • Walter Jarecki "Signa loquendi: Die cluniacensischen Signa-Listen" Saecula Spiritalia, iv (Baden Baden: Koerner, 1981) ISBN: 3873204045 [German]
  • Paul Meyvaert "The Medieval Monastic Garden" in Elisabeth B. MacDougall [ed.] Medieval Gardens (Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986) pp. 23-54 [Some signs directly mentioned in the footnotes.]

Signa Loquendi

In the last quarter of the 11th century, this list was written down at Cluny, modern-day France.

  • Kirk Ambrose "A Medieval Food List from the Monastery of Cluny" Gastronomica 6(1) 2006 pp.14-20 [Abstract, just the food signs.]
  • Scott G. Bruce Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism (Cambridge: CUP 2007)
  • Scott G. Bruce Uttering no human sound: Silence and sign language in western medieval monasticism. [PhD Thesis] (Ann Arbor, Mich. : U.M.I. 2000)
  • Mario Penna "I "Signa Loquendi" Cisterciensi in un Codice della Bibliotheca National di Madrid" in J Umiker-Seboek and TA Sebeok [eds.] Monastic sign languages. (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1987) pp. 495-532 [Italian]

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15th Century

Table of Signs of Syon

The Table of signs used during the hours of silence by the sisters and brothers in the monastery of Syon was part of a series of 15th century parchments given to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul [?London] by Robert Hare (Bentley, 1833; 414). The list was written by one of the brothers, Thomas Betson (d. 1516) but it appears that there really isn't much information about this sign list available, which is a shame because it is also the most easily accessible for English-speaking people.

Silence was to be kept at Syon "in the chirche, quyer [chior], freytour [refectory], cloyster, dortour [dormitory] and in the howse of secret nede, silence is euer to be kepte.... Also silence... is to be kepte in the lybrary... also in the waschyng howse in tyme of waschyne.... And... in the belfray in tyme of ryngyng." (Aungier, 1840; 296) (Blunt, 1973; xxxiii)

According to John Henry Blunt, there is an extended list, in Edmond Martène's 1690 text De antiquis monachorum ritibus libri quinque: collecti ex variis ordinariis, consuetudinariis, ritualibusque MSS. ex antiquis monachorum regulis, ex diversis sanctorum actis, monasteriorum chronicis & historiis, alissque probatis auctoribus permultis, although I have not been able to access a copy to verify this. (Blunt, 1873; xxxiv)

Livro de Sinais de Alcobaça 218

This manuscript dates to the mid-15th century (Reily, 2007; 316), and is in Portuguese, used in the Cistercian monastery of Alcobaça (Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça). It includes a list of 198 signs, grouped into categories.

  • See also the 16th century Livro de Sinais Cód. Alc. 91 for another Portuguese-language list.
  • Matins, Mário. "Livros de Sinais dos Cistercienses Portugueses" [Books of the signs of Portuguese Cistercians] Boletim de Filologia 17. (1958) pp. 293-357. [Note: this link downloads a very large PDF file.]

Summa de arithmetica, geometrica, proportioni et proportionalita (1494)

Luca Pacioli, incidentally the patron saint of accountants for his writings on double-entry book keeping, wrote a compendium of mathematical knowledge. Algebra, geometry, arithmetic and finger counting were all described.
The finger counting, once again, was derived from Bede albeit with a modification: the handshapes for 1 and 10 on the left hand were the mirror image to the 100s and 1000s on the right. This 'improved' finger calculus soon became the standard interpretation (Richter Sherman, 2000; 168-9).

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16th Century

Comparison of 16-17th century manual alphabets

This is something I have wanted to put together for years now: a table comparing the handshapes used in the manual alphabets of Thesaurus Artificiosae Memoriae (1579), Refugium Infirmorum (1593), Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (1620), Didascalocophus (1680), Digiti Lingua (1698), modern ASL and modern BANZSL. Hopefully someone will find it useful.

Abacus atque vetustissima veterum Latinorum per digitos manusque numerandi consuetudo (1532)

Johannes Turmair, also known as Aventinus published Bede's finger-reckoning method with a set of gorgeous woodcuts.


Livro de Sinais Cód. Alc. 91 (1547)

This manuscript, dated to 1547 (Reily, 2007; 316), comes from a Cistercian monastery in Braga, Portugal. It includes a list of 226 signs, grouped into categories.

  • See also the 15th century Livro de Sinais de Alcobaça 218 for another Portuguese-language list.
  • Matins, Mário. "Livros de Sinais dos Cistercienses Portugueses" [Books of the signs of Portuguese Cistercians] Boletim de Filologia 17. (1958) pp. 293-357. [Note: this link downloads a very large PDF file.]

Thesaurus Artificiosae Memoriae (1579)

Cosmas Rossellius was another scholar more interested in mnemonics than a manual alphabet, so there is at least one variety of hand shape given to represent, and imitate, each letter of the alphabet. With so many different options for each letter, it would be very difficult for anyone to really communicate to another person using these gestures, but it is included here mostly for completeness.

Interestingly, the 'artistic sign-ature' used by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) in his reconstrction of the Laocoön Suite and the Statue of Moses, is extremely similar to the M handshape in the Thesaurus (Castronovo, 1998; 34, 37).

De furtivis literarum notis (1591)

Giovanni Battista della Porta suggested, amongst other ways of 'secret' communication, pointing at different parts of the body to indicate letters.
This alphabet was:
A for aures (the ear), B for barba (the beard), C for caput (the head), and so on, pointing at dentes (the teeth), epar (the liver), frontem (the forehead), guttur (the throat), humeros (the shoulder), ilia (the flanks), linguam (the tongue), manum (the hand), nasum (the nose), oculos (the eyes), palatum (the palate), quinque digitos (five fingers), renes (the kidneys), supercilia (eyebrows), tempora (the temples), and ventrum (the belly).
This method is mentioned by Bonet (1620).

Refugium Infirmorum (1593)

The complete title was Libro llamado Refugium infirmorum, muy útil y provechoso para todo género de gente, en el cual se contienen muchos avisos espirituales para socorro de los afligidos enfermos, y para ayudar a bien morir a los que están en lo último de su vida; con un alfabeto de San buenaventura para hablar por la mano.(Book called refuge of the sick, very useful and beneficial for all kinds of people, in which is contained much spiritual advice for assistance of distressed sick persons, and for helping those who are at the end of their lives to die well; with Saint Bonaventure's alphabet to speak by the hand). It was published after his death in 1586 (Plann, 1992).

Fray Melchor de Yebra wrote the pamphlet outlining a common abecedarium, or collection of advice on living a good life in alphabetical order, ascribed to Bonaventure. However, the book also included a manual alphabet that could be used for priests to communicate to the dying who had lost the ability to speak, and thereby confess their sins or to use such hand movements as a mnemonic device to better recall the abecedarium itself (Bragg, 1997). de Yebra also described the alphabet as being "of service to confessors to enable them to talk to penitents who are hard of hearing and to answer them when they know how to make themselves understood with hand signs" (Van Cleve, 1989; 11). According to Bragg (1997), previous copies of Bonaventure's alphabet are still in existance, but de Yebra's book is the first to have printed it alongside an "alphabet to speak by the hand".

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17th Century

Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (1620)

Simplification of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf Mutes to Speak was written by Juan Pablo Bonet, a tutor to the de Velasco children, continuing the work of Ponce de Leon and Ramirez de Carrion. His manual alphabet is almost identical to that recorded by de Yebra, and is discussed in greater detail in Plann (1997) and Daniels (1992).
The beautiful illustrations of the handshapes were engraved by Diego de Astor the Elder (c. 1585-1590 - c. 1650.), and illustrate the back of the right hand, as if facing the viewer (Richter Sherman, 2000; 188).

Pronunciaciones generales de lenguas, ortografia, escuela de leer, escriuir, y contar, y sinificacion de latras en la mano (1623)

Although published after Bonet, Cristóbal Bautista Morales and his brother Juan Bautista had met the early deaf teacher Ramirez de Carrion, and had written a manuscript by 1618 describing the manual alphabet he used (Plann, 1997). Unlike the illustrated books of de Yebra and Bonet, this description is entirely text based and is in the chapter titled Letras por la mano para hablar y entenderse, principalmente con Mudos, y Sordos (Letters of the hand to speak and understand, primarily for the deaf and dumb).

Mercvry, or, the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641)

Also misrememberd as Mercury the Swift and Silent Messenger, this cryptographic work by John Wilkins discusses in chapter 14 'secret discoursing by by signs and gestures' discusses how people will mime actions to get messages across when there isn't a mutual spoken language. He also describes 'arthrologia' or 'dactylologia, finger calculus, and a manual alphabet:

As for example. Let the tops of the fingers ſignifie the five vowels; the middle parts, the five firſt conſonants; the bottomes of them, the five next conſonants; the ſpaces betwixt the fingers, the foure next. One finger laid on the ſide of the hand may ſignifie T. Two fingers V the conſonant; Three W. The little finger croſſed X. The wriſt Y. The middle of the hand Z. (Wilkins, 1641; 117)  

Wilkins wisely points out that while the message spelled out may be secret, fingerspelling is likely to attract attention so you are essentially advertising that you are communicating something secretively. Instead, he suggests to devise a system involving 'common' significations such as 'scratching of the head, rubbing the several parts of the face, wiking of the eyes, twisting of the bead &c;' (Wilkins, 1802; 60)

  • Scan of Mercvry, 1641 edition.
    Link current 22nd November 2009.
  • Wilkins, J. (1802) "Mercury, the Secret and Swift Messenger" in The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right Rev. John Wilkins, Late Lord Bishop of Chester. [Volume 2] (C. Whittingham: London) 1-60.
    Available via GoogleBooks. Has modernised text slightly different to the original edition, without the ligatures.

Chirologia and Chironomia (1644)

Chirologia: or The naturall language of the hand. Composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or, the art of manuall rhetoricke. Consisting of the naturall expressions, digested by art in the hand, as the chiefest instrument of eloquence, by historicall manifesto's, exemplified out of the authentique registers of common life, and civill conversation. VVith types, or chyrograms: a long-wish'd for illustration of this argument.
This is a book more focused on the use of gestures used in traditinal oratory or rhetoric, as originated with the Greeks and Romans. It does appear, however, that the gestures could be matched to alphabet letters.

La Trappe Abbey Sign List (before 1664?).

This sign list was published in 1824, in modern French, and is claimed to originate from between the establishment of La Trappe (after 1122) and the 17th century reform. It was briefly mentioned by Bruce (2007; 170) as an example of a sign list written in the vernacular.

Didascalocophus, Or the Deaf and Dumb Man's Tutor (1680)

George Dalgarno wrote a manual describing a method of teaching deaf-mutes. It also included a diagram of his dactylology system of pointing at joints of the hands to indicate a letter. This diagram is occasionally also referred to as 'Dalgarno's Glove.' Pointing to the fingertips to indicate vowels has been preserved in modern BANZSL fingerspelling.

  • Dalgarno, George (1834). “Didascalocophus, Or the Deaf and Dumb Man's Tutor” in The Works of George Dalgarno of Aberdeen (Maitland Club publications 29) pp. 110-160
    Online via GoogleBooks.

Digiti Lingua (1698)

Published by an anonymous author, who claimed this was his only mode of communication for nine years, it contained the first depiction of the consonant handshapes used in BANZSL fingerspelling (Moser et al., 1960).

  • Early English Books Online transcription (without images).
  • Hay, A. and Lee, R. (1994). A Pictorial History of the evolution of the British Manual Alphabet (British Deaf History Society Publications: Middlsex)
  • Szczepanski, Michael Fachdienste für Hörgeschädigte: Fingeralfabete see: 'England' and 'Groß Britannien'
    Available online.
    Last Accessed 21st November 2009.

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(References other than those directly mentioned in the text.)

  • Bentley, Samuel Excerpta Historica 1833
    Available online at GoogleBooks
    Link current 19th November 2009.
  • Blunt, John Henry The Myroure of Oure Ladye Containing a Devotional Treatise on Divine Service with a Translation of the Offices Used by the Sisters of the Brigittine Monastery of Sion at Isleworth During the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. 1873
    Available online at the Internet Archive
    Has also been republished by Kessinger publishing and BookSurge.
    Link current 19th November 2009.
  • Bragg, Lois “Visual-Kinetic Communication in Europe Before 1600: A Survey of Sign Lexicons and Finger Alphabets Prior to the Rise of Deaf Education” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 2(1) (1997) pp. 1-25
  • Scott G. Bruce Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism (Cambridge: CUP, 2007)
  • Castronovo, Joseph Anthony, Jr. (1998) Reading Hidden Messages Through Deciphered Manual Alphabets on Classic Artwork. [PhD Thesis: The University of Arizona.]
  • Daniels, Marilyn Benedictine Roots in the Development of Deaf Education (Bergin & Garvney: Westport, USA, 1997)
  • Kyle, J., Woll, B., Pullen, G., & Maddix, F. Sign language: the study of deaf people and their language. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  • Moser H.M., O'Neill J.J., Oyer H.J., Wolfe S.M., Abernathy E.A., and Schowe, B.M. "Historical Aspects of Manual Communication" Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 25 (1960) 145-151.
  • Plann, Susan A Silent Minority: Deaf Education in Spain 1550 - 1835 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1997)
    Online edition
    Link current 19th November 2009.
  • Ricao, Antonio Gascón. 2004-6. Historia del alfabeto dactilológico español Conference presentation for Seminario de Lingüística Aplicada: Las lenguas de señas
    PDF available at Cultura-Sorda and the Complutense University of Madrid.
    Both links current 19th November 2009.
  • Richter Sherman, Claire Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (The Trout Gallery: Pennsylvania, 2000)
  • Riley, Lucia. "O papel da Igreja nos primórdios da educação dos surdos" Revista Brasileira de Educação 12:35. 308-326.
  • van Cleve, John Vickrey and Crouch, Barry A. A Place of their Own (Gallaudet University Press: Washington DC 1989)

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