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In the ASL fingerspelling alphabet, the letters U, V, W, Y, and Z all look similar to the printed English letters. But the sign with the fingers in a x shape is R, and the letter X uses a different shape. Is there a reason for this or a known story behind how it got that way?

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The idea of using hand shapes to communicate seems to have been borrowed from native Americans by early Spanish explorers. In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet published a manual alphabet in which you can recognize most of the hand shapes of modern AMA (American Manual Alphabet); however, the 'R' was originally formed by bending only the middle finger. This sign is difficult to make without also bending the ring finger. I don't know if that was a reason, but after the French adopted the Spanish shapes, 'R' had changed to the slightly crossed index and middle fingers. The 'X' shape (hooked index finger with others curled) came first. Thomas Gallaudet brought the French shapes to America (back to where the concept had originated).

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    Conjecture: since there is 'cross-talk' in the bending of the minor fingers, it is possible that in 'R' the bent middle finger was shifted to a bent ring finger, and the index finger was used as a brace to prevent unwanted bending of the middle finger. Since that overlap is quite distinctive, it became the defining feature and the pinky finger was free to curl also, resulting in the modern 'R'.
    – amI
    Nov 18 '18 at 4:36
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The ASL manual alphabet is derived more or less directly from the French manual alphabet. Here, the shape of R is again as you describe.

The French X is shaped a little differently though; it's like the American one but extends both the middle and index finger, bending them in the way you know. This shape is reminiscent of the handwritten x which is formed by first writing the left hand part ), and then the right hand part (.

French manual alphabet letter X

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  • Thanks for pointing this out! I'm not sure I see any more resemblance to the printed letter, but it's valuable to know that this phenomenon predates ASL.
    – octern
    Nov 16 '18 at 2:22
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    Note: most cursive 'X's are not drawn by joining ')' and '(', and if you look at the American manual 'X' from the side, you can see something reminiscent of a common cursive 'x'.
    – amI
    Nov 18 '18 at 4:46

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