The inestimable value of speech-reading and the practicability of its acquisition under favorable conditions is a matter of common experience and observation but justice to the deaf requires a recognition of the fact that speech-reading has its limitations. Certain English words, chiefly short ones, are practically alike to the speech-reader and the context may fail sometimes to give a clew. It is necessary, at times, in communicating with even expert speech-readers, to have recourse to writing or oral spelling to convey the names of persons, places, technical terms, etc., not in common use. Moreover, it is convenient to have accurate and rapid means of conversation under unfavorable conditions as to light and distance, or when from any cause the deaf person's voice cannot be heard.
Writing is slow, inconvenient, and often impossible. Writing upon the palm of the hand was proposed by the Abbe Deschamps in 1778, as utilizing the sense of touch, and was used in darkness by him as a substitute for speech, but it is neither accurate nor rapid. Writing in the air4 with the finger is also slow and uncertain, while the action is unpleasantly conspicuous.
Finger-spelling would appear to be a far more convenient, easy, rapid, and accurate adjunct to speech or substitute for it than writing.
It is a common error to consider the ordinary manual alphabets as deaf-mute alphabets and finger-spelling as the sign-language of the deaf. Finger-spelling is to the deaf a borrowed art. It is used by many of the educated deaf and their friends as a substitute for the sign-language, and it enables them also to supply the deficiencies of the sign-language by incorporating words from written language. Scagliotti, of Turin, devised a system of initial signs5 which begin with letters of the manual alphabet, and Dr. Isaac Lewis Peet, of New York, has made a similar application of manual letters to signs to suggest words of our written language to the initiated deaf. But it should not be forgotten that practice in finger-spelling is practice in our language.
The origin of finger-spelling is not known. Barrois, a distinguished orientalist, in his Dactylologie et Langage primitif,6 ingeniously traces evidences of finger-spelling, from the Assyrian antiquities down to the fifteenth century upon monuments of art.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were familiar with manual arithmetic and finger-numeration, as quaint John Bulwer shows by numerous citations in his Chironomia (1644). The earliest finger-alphabets extant appear to have been based upon finger-signs for numbers, as, for instance, that given by the Venerable Bede (672-735) in his De Loguela per Gestum Digitorum sive Indigitatione, figured in the Ratisbon edition of 1532.7 Monks and others who had special reason to prize secret and silent modes of communication, beyond doubt invented and used many forms of finger alphabets as well as systems of manual signs.8 The oldest plates in the library of the National Deaf Mute College are found in the Thesaurus Artificiosae Memoriae of frater Cosmas P. Rossellius of Florence, printed in 1579, which gives three forms of one-hand alphabets. Bonet's work9 of 1620 gives one form of the one hand Spanish manual alphabet, which contains forms identical with certain letters in the alphabets of 1579. This was introduced into France by Pereire and taught to the Abbe de l'Epee by Saboureux de Fontenay, the gifted pupil of Pereire. The good Abbe however continued to use a French10 two-hand alphabet which, he had learned when a child and which he said all school-children knew.
He mentions also a Spanish alphabet in part requiring both hands, and remarks that different nations have different manual alphabets. The Abbe Deschamps, a rival of De l'Epee, made use of a finger alphabet in teaching the deaf to speak, which was not adapted to rapid use. John Bulwer, in his Chirologia, or the Naturall Language of the Hand, printed in 1644, figures five manual alphabets for secret communication.
The first alphabet which appears to have been devised expressly for use in teaching the deaf is that of George Dalgarno, of Aberdeen (1626-1687), given in his remarkable philosophical treatise, Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb Man's Tutor, Oxford, 1680. A facsimile of this alphabet is given in the Annals, vol. ix., page 19. Words are spelled by touching with your finger the positions indicated, either upon your hand or upon the hand of your interlocutor. An alphabet of the same character, however, was not unknown at an earlier date. For Bulwer, in 1648, says: "A pregnant example of the officious nature of the Touch in supplying the defect or temporall incapacity of the other senses we have in one Master Babington of Burntwood in the County of Essex, an ingenious gentleman, who through some sicknesse becoming deaf, doth notwithstanding feele words, and as if he had an eye in his finger, sees signes in the darke; whose Wife discourseth very perfectly with him by a strange way of Arthrologie or Alphabet contrived on the joynts of his Fingers; who taking him by the hand in the night, can so discourse with him very exactly; for he feeling the joynts which she toucheth for letters, by them collected into words, very readily conceives what shee would suggest unto him.
By which examples [referring to this case and to that of an abbot who became deaf, dumb, and blind, who understood writing traced upon his naked arm] you may see how ready upon any invitation of Art, the Tact is, to supply the defect, and to officiate for any or all of the other senses, as being the most faithfull sense to man, being both the Founder, and Vicar generall to all the rest."11
Dr. Alexander Graham Bell has modified the Dalgarno alphabet, and has made considerable use of it in its modified form as figured in the Annals, vol. xxviii., page 133. He esteems it highly for certain purposes, especially as employing touch to assist the sight or to release the sight for other employment, as in reading speech for instance. Here a touch-alphabet may be an efficient aid to the sight, as the touch may fairly keep pace with the rapidity of oral expression in deliberate speech. An objection of Dr. Kitto to the two-hand alphabet so widely know by school-children and others in Great Britain and in this country would seem to apply with greater force to the Dalgarno alphabet: "To hit the right digit on all occasions is by far the most difficult point to learn in the use of the [two-hand] manual alphabet, and it is hard to be sure which fingers have been touched."12