I am often asked if sign language is universal. It’s not. Auslan came to Australia with English convict Betty Steele, who signed BSL (British sign language). With years of isolation, Auslan and BSL have both evolved, so that while the languages are similar, they are now quite different. The Americans got their sign language from France, and French sign language looks very different to Auslan, as the fingerspelling and many of the hand signs are done with one hand instead of two.
If you put two signing people in the same room who don’t know each others’ language, they will work out how to communicate with each other much faster than two hearing/speaking people would. When I bumped into a group of Deaf women in France one time, despite me not knowing any French sign language and them not knowing any English or Auslan, we worked out how to communicate quite quickly. Within half an hour we had moved on to abstract concepts like planned obsolescence.
Back to American fingerspelling… in America there is a larger population of Deaf people than in Australia. They even have a Deaf university. This means that their language has more opportunities to evolve than ours, and although some people are against this practise, in Auslan we often borrow signs from ASL (American sign language). Also, several of these borrowed signs, and signs that are considered proper Auslan, are based on handshapes that come from the one-handed American alphabet. It’s handy to know the alphabet in order to familiarise yourself with these shapes.
Some people who use Auslan will spell with American sign language if they have only one hand available, because the other is busy holding a drink or something else. However, when I went to America, I discovered that the actual American letter T is different from the way Australians sign T when they think they are using American fingerspelling! There may be other letters that are different. This video shows my best guess for the American alphabet, and the way my friends and I use American fingerspelling:
In the video there are two variations for the letter T – the first one shows how American people actually sign it. The second one shows how Australians tend to sign it.