common criticisms of signwriting?

SignWriting signwriting at MAC.COM
Sun Nov 15 16:33:26 UTC 2009

SignWriting List
November 15, 2009

Hello Sandy!
Thanks for this message. Back in 1975, when I arrived for a meeting at  
Salk Institute to show Dr. Ursula Bellugi and her husband, Ed Klima  
(both renowned linguists), my first attempts at SignWriting, I met Don  
Newkirk there at Salk Institute. In another separate meeting, Don  
showed me his writing system of using only ASCII characters to write  
sign languages. It was his own unique invention, and has NOTHING to do  
with SignFont, which Don Newkirk directed and presented a decade  
later...SignFont was developed by others, but ten years earlier Don  
Newkirk developed his own ASCII-based writing system, which I called  
the Newkirk system when referring to it in those days. But Don  
Newkirk's system of using an ordinary typewriter with ASCII write sign languages...was never used on a regular  
basis by any group as far as I know. I personally only know of one who  
was interested in it, and I have yet to see anyone use it to write  
sentences in sign languages. I have never once heard of any Deaf  
person writing ASCII characters to represent the handshapes, movements  
and facial expressions of Sign Languages...His system looked like  
writing very very long strings of letters that had no meaning to  
everyone, a little bit like trying to read Welsh if you don't know  
Welsh, and Don himself, 10 years later, dropped the idea to back  
SignFont, which also is not used much, as far as I can see...I do not  
see any sign language storytelling written in either of these systems,  
because neither were true writing frankly, if you think  
that a Deaf child is going to write her poetry in ASL or BSL with  
ASCII characters I do not believe it would happen...based on knowing  
Don Newkirk's story...I told him back in 1975 that although I could  
see the advantages of being able to use the normal typewriter, that  
was the only advantage, and the visual nature of sign languages was  
lost in the process and that would be sad...but I felt honored that  
Don Newkirk shared his writing system with me...thank you, Don!

Regarding special software for SignWriting and other spoken  
languages...we use software to type English with ASCII characters too!  
We also write English by hand, but we write SignWriting by hand that is no different!

BOTH ASCII writing systems and SignWriting need special software or  
they cannot be typed on a computer, and both are written by hand...

And I beg to differ that we are outdated...SignWriting software is  
improving daily thanks to the efforts of so many, just as English  
typing software is improving daily too...

But I know you use SignWriting too, Sandy, and don't think I am  
discounting your idea...I understand you really feel that way and of  
course perhaps you can improve upon the basic idea by Don Newkirk long  

Great to hear from you - it has been a long time and we miss your  

Val ;-)


On Nov 15, 2009, at 12:47 AM, Sandy Fleming wrote:

> 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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