common criticisms of signwriting?
signwriting at MAC.COM
Sun Nov 15 16:33:26 UTC 2009
November 15, 2009
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
characters...to 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 systems...so 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
too...so 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
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
>> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> the page and would have to be learned properly, the characters chosen
> could nevertheless be graphically motivated to aid the learning
> And of course the advantage of not needing to write special software
> 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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