Auslan Handshapes Periodic Table

Auslan Handshapes Periodic Table: the story behind it, why it was created and how you can use it.



So what’s the purpose of this poster? Why was it was created? And how you can use it?

The poster was created to showcase the collection of handshapes used in Auslan for signs. The main source is from the Auslan Dictionary, categorised in the same manner as in the dictionary. The dictionary was created in 1989 – back then, Dr Trevor Johnston, the leading Auslan linguist was compiling as much information as he could. I have not elide on the dictionary for all the handshape names used in the poster, and there is always a chance that some names will change over time as community usage and preferences evolve.  This list is not set in stone, but is a good starting point for now.

There are some handshapes included in the table, which were used for signs that were in use historically but then are no longer used in the community now. You can recognise those by the black and white boxes – plus the one NINE handshape (for which there’s no other signs using that handshape other than the number its named for).

There has been some debate on a couple of handshapes on the poster (LETTER-N & LETTER-M). Some have asked the obvious question: “Aren’t they ASL handshapes?”.  Actually, like other living languages, Auslan is always evolving and is subject to influences from other languages.  One such influence has been Signed English, which was used by a sizable minority of Deaf signers from the late 1970s to early 2000s due to educational policies in place in that era.  Signed English was in turn influenced to a small extent by ASL.  So, while signs using those handshapes are generally no longer considered as native to Auslan, I’ve included them on the poster as a historical reference of Auslan’s evolution as a living language.

The main reason for the creation of the poster is to shift the focus from the alphabet / fingerspelling onto the actual language and its components. The fingerspelt Alphabet is used as a bridging tool between English and Auslan, especially for proper nouns, placenames and brand names. It is not however a fundamental component of Auslan, while handshapes most definitely are. I want to combat the misperception that if you know the fingerspelt alphabet you are using Auslan – it is simply not like that. We need to highlight the handshapes as a fascinating and fundamental building block of Auslan and key to its uniqueness as an Australian language.

So how can this Periodic Table be used?

One way is as a reference to find signs in Auslan. The Signbank (which is constantly updated with the latest signs) has an English search engine, so this poster could stand in as the handshapes ‘search engine’!  Best of both worlds in identifying signs for us?

There are many other ways you can use the Periodic Table poster:

  • A reference for learning handshapes
  • Knowing how many signs in each handshape in each category
  • Creating a story in Auslan by using one handshape per category, or all handshapes in one category
  • Glossing with a ‘common’ name for each handshape making it easier for all to know what you are referring to.

I am sure you may have more ideas or even questions – so share away!

And if you want to buy one, click here: Periodic Table of Auslan Handshapes