common criticisms of signwriting?

SignWriting signwriting at MAC.COM
Sun Nov 15 17:20:27 UTC 2009

SignWriting List
November 15, 2009

The Don Newkirk system for using ASCII characters to write the visual  
nature of sign languages was never used by Deaf people on a daily  
basis. And Stokoe and HamNoSys, although used in the linguistic world  
for research and study, have not been written on a daily basis by Deaf  
people either. There is nothing wrong with any of these systems, but  
they were not designed to write the 21 chapters of the Gospel  
According to John in ASL, or a 145 page novel written in the  
handshapes, movements and facial expressions of Spanish Sign Language  
from Madrid. None of them have enough development of writing facial  
expressions to write real Sign Language Literature, because they were  
not designed to write sign languages as a daily script. Nor do they  
have sentence punctuation for writing long documents. But SignWriting  
is spreading throughout Brazil for a reason, it is easy to write by  
hand and yes...even by computer...and we have incorporated what Deaf  
people have requested of write down in visual vertical  
columns, and not to write left to right, which our Deaf staff felt was  
not intuitively proper for writing sign languages...

So Sandy, although I understand your need to want to write from left  
to right, I would like to tell you that was the way I started too (a  
decade of writing from left to right)...but Deaf people requested  
writing down and that is why we took us a decade of  
development and working with Deaf people to find out that writing from  
left to right was not intuitive for you would be stepping  
backwards in time if you write from left to right, in my experience...

For any new writing system to really work for the Deaf Community, you  
will need to work with Deaf people to give you feedback to be sure  
they will be able to read it and use it on a daily basis...

If you are developing your writing system for the linguistic world,  
that is a different story, since most linguists do not need to reach  
the Deaf Community with their writings...nor are they trying to write  
literature, or work with Deaf children age 3! Stefan told me that he  
taught a three-year old how to read SignWriting the other day...and  
that more teachers in his school are using SignWriting now...the  
visual nature of reading it is intuitive enough that it reaches  
children in a way that an abstract writing system cannot...that is why  
I am dedicating my life to its development, and the development is not is still ongoing...simplification of SignWriting is  
happening daily...

As far as the complexities of SignWriting goes, actually no one uses  
all the symbols in the ISWA...each sign language only uses a smaller  
subset of those symbols...and for example, when Nancy wrote the Gospel  
According to John, she simplified the SignSpellings quite a  
lot...SignWriting is being simplified by its users out of necessity,  
and that is good and the natural evolution into simpler writing for  
daily use is happening naturally through usage...that is the way I  
want is more intuitive that way for the users, when their  
writings are the tools that bring the simplification to the  
world...Nancy's writing in the Gospel According to John is so  
simplified, that it is easy to sit down and read the book like one  
reads the English newspaper or a novel...fluent reading of SignWriting  
novels and Bibles will happen more and more now, because finally we  
have some literature of substance to read...the more reading material  
is available in written sign languages, the more simplified  
SignWriting will become...I have provided lots of detail with the idea  
that people will, in time, choose what they need and discard the rest...

By the way, we started with around 60 characters years ago, in the  
early 1980s, when we were only writing 2 sign languages...both were  
related historically and so had a lot of the same handshapes...Danish  
Sign Language and American Sign Language. But when you start writing  
Ethiopian Sign Language, Sandy, you will find you will need more  
symbols...that is why the ISWA has so many handshapes...because like  
the IPA, we were trying to list every handshape we had written to  
date, but not because we expect every sign language to use all those  
symbols - not at all! I would say that Nancy probably used around 50  
or 60 BaseSymbols to write the Gospel According to John -so your  
number of around 50 sounds right to me...

21 Chapters of the Gospel According to John

Sandy, please excuse me if I sound like I am on a soapbox...I guess I  
have my heart in my own work...I do wish you all the best with  
anything you try and I appreciate the work you have done with  
SignWriting in the past...I really liked your other software you  
started to develop for SignWriting and it is a shame we do not have  
the funds right now to invest in it...Your idea of the stick figure  
was very visual and great for the intuitive nature of  
I can see you have many abilities in many

Have a splendid day, and thanks for sharing...

I am now going to announce the new PocketPuddle next message...

Val ;-)


On Nov 15, 2009, at 2:44 AM, Sandy Fleming wrote:

> On Sun, 2009-11-15 at 10:51 +0100, Gerard Meijssen wrote:
>> Hoi,
>> Theoretically I agree, symbols can be divorced from their accepted
>> meaning.. However, it would create utter confusion by people who are
>> used for the characters in a script to have a relation that is well
>> defined to sounds. They will try to pronounce it... only to learn  
>> that
>> they are not used in that way anymore.. It is the same with
>> standardised transliteration from one script to another.. The sound
>> implied is no longer there. This makes no difference if it is your
>> sound values that are mapped.. and indeed it is a foreign language
>> that is represented so it is ok, the sounds are however still mapped
>> to one sounding system.
> I agree with that, and I wouldn't want to advocate any particular  
> way of
> writing at too early a stage. Do we want to use the findings of modern
> linguistics to simplify SignWriting (especially if we can reduce the
> size of the ISWA dramatically) or devise something completely  
> different?
> I don't know what's best, but I do think that one or the other will
> happen as people become more aware of findings in linguistics,
> especially with respect to sign language universals.
> Note that when I talk about "simplifying SignWriting" I don't mean  
> using
> shorthand. I mean simplifying it in such a way that information
> significant to sign language execution isn't lost.
>> One immediate problem is that SignWriting illustrates well how
>> complicated it is .. I wonder if there are enough characters in the
>> alphabetic scripts to represent sign languages and, if it can be done
>> in a universal way. It is however not the kind of research I find
>> appealing as my gut feeling says that it will not work.
> I don't think SignWriting does illustrate the complexity of the  
> problem,
> because SignWriting is more complex than it needs to be.
> To lay my cards on the table, I've been devising and working with an
> ASCII-based system and a similar specially-designed font (hence my  
> long
> absence!) and I don't find any pressing need for more than about 50
> characters. This system is written linearly. I find I can write  
> stuff in
> BSL with the ASCII character set and a few months later I can still  
> read
> it.
> I'm now trying to decide whether it's best to stick with the linear
> version of the script or whether it would be better to just try to
> reduce the ISWA and stick with SignWriting.
> I don't know if anybody remembers that I did submit a text in "linear
> SignWriting" to the list a long time ago, but it wasn't well
> received  :)
> Sandy Fleming
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