common criticisms of signwriting?

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Mon Nov 16 14:27:45 UTC 2009

I think this Malawi report proves the point...the Deaf children were  
writing within minutes, and analyzing SignSpellings very quickly, and  
this is only because of the visual nature of the writing system...that  
would not have happened with an abstract writing system...this kind of  
success reaching readers quickly did not happen overnight either...  
Deaf people have given their input over decades and the hard work of  
changing the writing system to meet their requests has been well worth  
it...but because the Deaf requests have not been what most hearing  
people can imagine (vertical columns with lanes and so forth), of  
course it is hard for hearing people to grasp this reaction from Deaf  
people...they are in two different worlds...I want to thank Carol for  
this is very heartening...


From: "Carol Nussbaumer" <carol at>
Date: November 15, 2009 12:06:02 PM PST
To: <Sutton at>
Subject: Pocket Puddle Thanks

Dear Valerie,
Thanks for the e-mail and Pocket Puddle update!  I may not get a  
chance to
work with it for a while but I'm glad to have it.  We had a successful  
to Malawi --- back about 2 weeks and almost over jet lag.  I took Pocket
Puddle and SW to the deaf school; we didn't have as much time to work  
on it
as I had hoped, but did get it introduced.  The teacher in charge of
computer lab has been able to install it on the school system.  Many  
for it and for the books you donated.  I am attaching a couple of  
of school for you -- one is the staff working on Sign Writing in the
library/staff room.  The man at the end of the table is Mr. Macleod  
headmaster at school and a good friend.  The other picture is Standard 3
with their copy of Goldilocks.  It took about 10 seconds for them to  
out the sign system....!  Standard 8 (our oldest group) took around 5
minutes to figure out how to write sign and had a blast developing some
Chitumbuka sign.  It was fun watching them go back and forth about which
piece of each sign was exactly right until all 10 of them were happy!   
on my tiny netbook screen it worked pretty well.  I'm hopeful that  
this is a
start toward getting sign in Malawi "tied down" instead of morphing  
few days.
Thanks again,
Carol Nussbaumer

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On Nov 16, 2009, at 6:03 AM, Charles Butler wrote:

> Sandy, with the exception of Brazil, have the "sign language  
> linguistics" people actually listened to the Deaf in their studies  
> or are they using them as a "video tape audience" to make  
> assumptions about the use of language.
> When I saw videotape after videotape of assumptions in Brazil at the  
> Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research conference in 2005 I  
> began to wonder who they were talking about.  Even though  
> SignWriting is used daily in more than a dozen universities, and in  
> grammar schools throughout the country, TISLR refused to even have  
> one presentation that actually included it.  That is simply  
> prejudice against the actual users of the writing system out of hand.
> With SignWriting an utterance can be clearly and quickly compared  
> between whether a person is repeating a sign, using that sign in a  
> variant at a higher or lower signing space, changing the posture of  
> the person to accommodate multiple points of view, recognizing that  
> signing is not linear but cyclical (everything happens at once so  
> you need a system that shows the whole sign as a grapheme).
> I looked at poster after poster of repeating the same information  
> over and over again as if the Deaf were some "object to be  
> discovered" rather than actually asking the Deaf what they were  
> thinking at the time and what they were doing.  The Deaf are not  
> chimpanzees or an alien culture without thought.
> As a user of spoken language, I can read multiple accents of the  
> English language, all of which require the IPA to produce the  
> differences between the New England accent and the Southern accent  
> of American English, both of which use the common "Roman alphabet"  
> to write the same words though they may be pronounced radically  
> differently.
> With SignWriting I can show the same sign say "girl" and then the  
> variant of the height of the child indicates a real child, not some  
> theoretical "high, middle, low".
> If you show SignWriting to a Deaf person, they can read it  
> immediately, and I mean within 5 minutes, not the 3 years for good  
> reading for the Roman alphabet.  Tests are overwhelmingly positive  
> for SignWriting and not for any other form of linguistically-based  
> system.
> Plus, because of the "assembled graphic" backbone in programming of  
> SignWriting, the linguistic research can be done by scanning all  
> occurrences of a handshape both my grapheme or by the programming  
> behind it.
> I'm really trying to understand, having now gone to several "sign  
> language linguistics" conferences what the purpose of linguistics  
> is, if it is not "real people" who are actually using signs all over  
> the world to really communicate their own thoughts on paper, pencil,  
> machine, and in video.
> Creating a left-to-right writing system simply because "vocal  
> languages" use it, when the users of the language write it  
> differently is simply a "hearie" assumption, and I'm a hearie so I'm  
> not speaking out of my hat.
> Charles
> From: Sandy Fleming <sandy at>
> To: SignWriting List <sw-l at>
> Sent: Sun, November 15, 2009 3:47:07 AM
> Subject: Re: [sw-l] common criticisms of signwriting?
> 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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