Writing directly in a Sign Language with no spoken language

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Thu Jul 7 21:52:53 UTC 2005

SignWriting List
July 7, 2005

Dear SW List Members:
I was talking to a friend today, and a question was asked: ....Can  
Deaf people really write directly in the movements of their own  
signed language, without ever thinking in a spoken language?...and of  
course I answered yes!

That is how SignWriting really improved...I started with my Deaf  
staff. I asked them, starting in 1981, to write articles for the  
SignWriter Newspaper, but I made sure they did not write the articles  
in ANY spoken language or gloss system. They were all Deaf adults  
born into Deaf families...I asked them to write their articles by  
hand, directly in the movements of their native signed language, as a  
true written form for their language, having nothing to do with any  
spoken language. This was a very new concept and still is, but I have  
seen it first hand, that Deaf people can and will write directly in  
the movements of their own language, without ever thinking or  
relating to spoken language at all...That means that SignWriting is a  
true writing system for signed languages, with no relation to spoken  

Why is that important? Because it means that it can be used to  
preserve the historic signed languages of the Deaf, and it also can  
be applied in so many other ways, blended with spoken languages...and  
that is ok too! The point is that SignWriting can do both...

On this web page, I scanned in a document of one of the hand-written  
articles written by Deaf people who worked for me....


Notice there is no spoken language on the page...

I asked them not to think in English, and I always made sure that no  
hearing people were in the room while they were working together in  
their native ASL. When hearing people are present, they would start  
writing English grammar or a blend, instinctively, because that is  
what they learned in school...so they had to teach themselves that it  
was ok to write in ASL grammar that is very different than English.  
Once the articles were written in the first draft in ASL, a hearing  
native signer would create an English translation of the ASL...We  
wrote a 20 page newspaper four times a year like this...a huge  
job...all by hand.

Although the writing system itself was very different back then, it  
was this direct writing in ASL that helped the writing system become  
better. As these first Deaf people really wrote volumes of  
SignWriting by hand, they realized they needed to write in the  
Expressive View. They also preferred writing down the page in  
columns. If I had not required that they write directly in their own  
language, they would never have become truly fluent ASL writers, and  
they would never have realized they needed the Expressive view and  
vertical writing...The palm facing also improved because of their  
writing by hand...I could see what they were doing naturally...so  
huge and important changes were made to the writing system at the end  
of the 1980's and early 1990's.

The best thing that ever happened to us, was when Deaf people who  
were fluent signwriters, demanded these new things...Expressive,  
vertical writing and the current palm facing we are using now..

Just wanted to share this with you - our system is very close to  
being stable now...thanks to this long history...there are a few  
symbols that need to be better, but just by the sheer volume of  
writing that is happening around the world, it is obvious that it is  
working for people in general...

Val ;-)

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