The “tip of the fingers” phenomenon (TOF) for sign language parallels the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon (TOT) for spoken language. During a TOF, signers are sure they know a sign but cannot retrieve it. Although some theories collapse semantics and phonology in sign language and thus predict that TOFs should not occur, TOFs were elicited in the current study. Like TOTs, TOFs often resolve spontaneously, commonly involve targets that are proper names, and frequently include partial access to phonology. Specifically, signers were more likely to retrieve a target sign’s handshape, location, and orientation than to retrieve its movement. Signers also frequently recalled the first letter of a finger-spelled word. The existence of TOFs supports two-stage retrieval and a division between semantics and phonology in American Sign Language. The partial phonological information available during TOFs suggests that phonological features are accessed more simultaneously during lexical access for signed language than during lexical access for spoken language.
Source: “‘Tip of the Fingers’ Experiences by Deaf Signers” from Psychological Science