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Art of Cueing: Segment One

This segment introduces Cued Speech for American English and describes good cueing form. Good form will improve your cue-readability, lessen fatigue and reduce the risk of repetitive motion injury. Two handshapes (six consonants) and three placements (eight vowels) are presented. This segment is the longest; we want to get you started on the right track while your enthusiasm is high. If you want to divide it in half, a good place to stop is after the Solitary Vowels and Consonants section.


Cueing uses three "channels" to convey what is being said: handshapes providing information about consonants, placements giving information about vowels, and the lips and face themselves. None of the channels alone, or even in pairs, can convey the entire message.

In American English there are twenty-five consonants, however only eight handshapes are necessary to make each consonant visually distinct. Consider not, tot and dot. The difference between these words lies in whether or not the vocal cords are vibrating and whether air is directed through the mouth or nose.  None of these differences is visible to a speechreader. When cued, these words become visually distinct because different handshapes are used for the consonants /n/, /t/, and /d/. On the other hand, consonants that are already visually different are free to share the same handshape; for example, pot and dot can begin with the same handshape because the lips close for pot but not dot.

The eight handshapes and their corresponding consonant sounds are:

/d p zh/
/TH k v z/
/r h s/
/b wh n/
/m f t/
/w l sh/
/th g j/
/y ng ch/
deep azure
the caves
by when
thug Joe
young church
Below each handshape are the symbols representing corresponding phonemes, a mnemonic to help you remember the cue, and a number. The numbers are simply a convenient way to refer to handshapes in this document. Handshapes 1 through 5 have that many fingers extended; 6 and 7 follow this scheme if you count your thumb as five; 8, the final shape, is V for victory. The handshapes will be described more completely in Segments One through Four.

The vowels of American English are represented by four specific sites around the lower face called placements. Vowels cued at the side placement and diphthongs (vowel blends) require extra motion that will be discussed when they are introduced in Segment Two. The vowel placements:

/ur ee/
/ue aw e/
/oo a i/
/uh oe ah/
fir tree
too tall Ted
look at it
and diphthongs:
/oi ay/
/ie ou/
oy vay
time out
As you speak, your cues must be synchronized with the sounds you are making. Utterances are broken up into consonant-vowel (CV) pairs and the cues timed so that the consonant's handshape is displayed and the vowel placement touched as the lips make the consonant sound.  As the vowel is uttered, the hand changes configuration to the next handshape while it moves to the following vowel placement. Here's how the phrase hello reader would be cued:
/h e/
/l oe/
/r ee/
/d ur/
Cueing is a dynamic process only partially captured in the frames above. Each picture depicts the instant the lips are in position for the vowel, but before the hand begins moving toward the the next cue. Details on timing and dividing utterances into CV pairs are provided below and in subsequent segments.



Good form is important for both the cue reader and the cuer. Good form increases legibility -- clear cues are easier to read. Good form helps helps the cuer by lessening fatigue in the short term and by lowering the risk of repetitive motion injuries in the long term. Check your form by practicing in front of a mirror or by video taping yourself. Periodically review these guidelines because as you become a faster cuer, your hands will automatically take shortcuts that degrade legibility and durability. Common errors include not reaching the correct placement, bending at the wrist or knuckles, and even skipping cues entirely. 
Face your cue reader. Remember the reader must be able to see both your hands and lips simultaneously. Keep your hand flat -- don't rotate your arm or squish your fingers behind each other -- and parallel to the plane of your face. Your handshapes should be as visible as possible. Keep your forearm, hand and fingers straight in a line and move between placements by moving your shoulder. Your arm should be between 10 and 45 degrees from vertical. Keep extended fingers together (except for handshape 8). Unextended fingers should not be visible past the first knuckle.

Mouth Placement PictureThe Mouth Placement /ur ee/ "fir tree"

The mouth placement is the corner of your mouth on your cueing hand side. It should be touched with the handshape's longest extended finger which we will call the pointer finger. Be careful not to obscure the lips themselves. /ee/ is the vowel sound in words like beet, wheat, and free. /ur/ is the vowel sound in firm, fur, stir and were. See how many spellings there are for the same sound? Remember to cue words as you say them, not as they're spelled.

Handshape 5 /m f t/ "miffed"

Handshape 5 has all the fingers extended with the thumb pointing straight up. It is used for the /m/ in me, the /f/ in fee, and the /t/ in tea. In fact, all these words are cued the same way: handshape 5 at the mouth placement (sometimes abbreviated 5m). A cue reader tells them apart by what is happening on the lips. Now you can cue the syllables, /mee/, /fee/, /tee/, /mur/, /fur/ and /tur/.

Solitary Vowels and Consonants

As mentioned above, cues are made for each consonant-vowel (CV) pair in an utterance. This is a strict rule. The CV groupings do not always line up with syllable boundaries: catalog for example, is syllabicated /kat/ /uh/ /lawg/ but cued /ka/ /tuh/ /law/ /g/. On the other hand, when a word ending in a C is followed by a word beginning with a V, the C and the V group together to form one cue. Cues that cross word boundaries are called liasons and will be discussed in Segment Three.

English, however, does not fall into perfect CV patterns, so what happens when there is a V with no preceeding C or C with no following V? The short answer: handshape 5 is used as a placeholder for a "missing" consonant, and the side placement is used for a "missing" vowel. The side placement is located about four inches from the center of your chin horizontally and at the same level as the bottom of your chin.

Solitary vowels are cued with handshape 5 at the vowel's normal placement. For instance, if a mouse suddenly ran across the floor, you might yell, "Eeeeeee!" which would be cued with the open handshape, 5, (no consonant) at the mouth placement (/ee/) for as long as you held the vowel. To cue the word eat, which falls into a VC pattern, you need two cues: handshape 5 at the mouth (no consonant + /ee/); and then handshape 5 at the side (/t/ + no vowel). Compare eat (VC) with tea (CV) which only requires one cue: handshape 5 at the mouth (/t/ + /ee/).

Solitary consonants, that is C's which cannot group with a following V, occur frequently because many words contain clusters of consonants, like the word straps -- /s/ /t/ /r/+/a/ /p/ /s/. Only /r/ has a a corresponding vowel. More examples will be presented later in this segment and in Segment Five.

Now you know enough to cue:

meet me fur fee
feet meter femur murmur
Or to ask a Briton for a date:
Meet me for tea? /m ee t m ee f ur t ee/
Or, if you're Tarzan, declare your preference for steak over ground beef:
Me eat firm meat! /m ee ee t f ur m m ee t/
Stop here if you are tired!

The Chin Placement /ue aw e/ "too tall Ted"

The chin placement is located at the point of your chin, straight down from your nose. /ue/ is the vowel sound in true, shoe, blew, suit, and too. The vowel /aw/ occurs in awe, sauce, taught and moss. /e/ is in rest, messed, and err. You may be surprised to learn /e/ is also the vowel in the words air, rare, and stare. The tongue tip moving towards the roof of the mouth for the /r/ phoneme at the ends of these words changes your perception of the vowel's sound. Have someone say either "err fair" or "air fare" and see if you can tell the difference.

Handshape 3 /r h s/ "rehearse"

For handshape 3, the thumb holds back the index finger which is bent backward at the first knuckle. The last two segments of the index finger and the thumb should not be visible to the cue reader. The middle finger is the pointer finger for handshape 3; it should touch the vowel placements. Handshape 3 is for three consonants: /r/ as in reef, /h/ as in her and /s/ as in set. Try cueing these words:
he her see sir who
rue Sue raw saw terse
hearse tomb moot wrought hem
mess messed roost surfer heifer
Who taught Sue? Her tutor, Tess, first taught her to surf.
Reefs hurt her feet. Rhett saw her. He set her femur.
He fought her suitor, Ross, who eats hare stew raw.
Rhett, whom fruit suits, taught Ross to rue rare meat.
Sue met Rhett. He messed her fair surfer hair.

The Throat Placement /oo a i/ "look at it"

For the throat placement, your pointer finger should touch at or just below the larynx (Adam's apple). The hand should be only two to three inches below your chin; cue readers must be able to see both the handshape and the lips simultaneously. /oo/ is in the words wood, should, wolf, and soot. /a/ is the short vowel in mat, frat, and staff. /i/, another short vowel, is in if, wrist, and tryst. Now cue:
it at foot fit fat
mass miss ma'am roof sat
fist hissed wrist half aft
miffed sister master stiffer mastiff
Miss Hoof's rooster hat emits soot if it's stressed.
Her straw tam emits mist if hissed at. Riffraff
hoot at her hats. Misfit hats suit her moussed hair.
Her first hat she saw aft at Tim's steam raft. Her
tacit offer sat true. He tossed free hats at her.


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© 1998-2001 J. Frisbie