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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Show of Hands: A Natural History of Sign Language
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As was alluded to above, it is not only the configuration of the hand itself that is significant, but also the neurological specialization of handedness that establishes the unique functional capabilities of human hands. Although some variation in published estimates exists, clearly the vast majority of modern human beings, up to 90 percent, are right handed—showing a strong preference for using the right hand to perform most skilled activities. Some evidence for handedness in nonhuman primates has been found, not surprisingly among chimpanzees in particular (Hopkins 1999), but most scientists accept that the degree of preference and the prevalence of the right as the preferred hand constitute a uniquely human trait.

Fig. 2. Human grips. Reproduced with permission from Marzke and Marzke 2000. © John Wiley and Sons.

This sort of manual dexterity allows humans to use their hands to mimic and thereby represent all sorts of objects and actions. Two downward pointing fingers making a scissoring action can represent a person walking, for example, and five wiggling fingers can represent a spider or other animal. Some of these gestures may be understood almost universally. The ‘L’ hand held with the finger pointing out and the thumb pointing up represents a handgun anywhere in the world where such weapons exist. The ‘Y’ had held with the pinky at the chin and the thumb at the ear represents a telephone everywhere there are telephones. And so on. No other part of the human anatomy is capable of creating signs with this degree of distinctiveness.

Fig. 3. Chimpanzee grips. Top photo reproduced with permission from Marzke and Marzke 2000. © John Wiley and Sons. Bottom photo reproduced with permission of the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, Department of Veterinary Sciences, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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