common criticisms of signwriting?

Sandy Fleming sandy at FLEIMIN.DEMON.CO.UK
Sun Nov 15 08:47:07 UTC 2009

On Fri, 2009-11-06 at 11:55 +0000, Trevor Jenkins wrote:
> Interesting topic. One criticism that I've heard about SignWriting
> (from sign language interpreters) is that it is too ideograhic! They
> prefer either Stokoe or HamNoSys notations! Yet if you show a Deaf
> people something transcribed in Stokoe or HamNoSys and the reaction is
> utter confusion. This is exacerbated beacuse the BSL fingerspelling
> alphabet (I'm in the UK) is two-handed and completely different from
> the one-handed ASL alphabet that is used to label handshapes in
> Stokoe.

Of course, if you showed some written English to a hearing person who
had never seen written language before, the reaction would also be
confusion, so that's not necessary an argument against less schematic
writing systems.

I feel that Stokoe, HamNoSys and SignWriting all run into the same
problem: they're all falling behind with respect to the advances that
have been made in sign language linguistics since they were invented.

I think that any current sign language writing system will need to be
revamped in the light of these findings.

In linguistics, for example, signs tend to be described in terms of a
few bases (head, trunk, opposite hand and suchlike), and it's
acknowledged that non-compound signs are signed on only one of these.
Moreover, the "settings" or positions at which a sign is made on a base
is simply high, low, left, right, far and near, so positioning could
easily be incorporated into a simple linear writing system.

Similarly, orientation is more simply described in modern linguistics
than it generally is in available writing systems, and handshapes can be
described in terms of a few components so that a huge character set for
describing all the handshapes isn't really required.

I think that a relatively simple, linear system that could be written
with a fairly small alphabet of ASCII characters (or any preferred font:
say, Arabic, Cyrillic or a specially designed one) without diacritics is
well within our grasp in the light of modern research.

Although this would look like a normal alphabet-based writing system on
the page and would have to be learned properly, the characters chosen
could nevertheless be graphically motivated to aid the learning process.

And of course the advantage of not needing to write special software for
anything would be immense. If two people learned it they could
immediately start communicating in sign language by SMS, email or
anything else without having to set any software up.

Classifier constructions in sign languages would be the real test of
such a writing system, but my feeling is that if someone could write
plain signs well in such a system, they'd be able to write classifier
constructions with the same sort of creative thinking that goes into
executing such constructions in the living language.

Sandy Fleming


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