common criticisms of signwriting?

Natasha Escalada-Westland shash90 at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 16 21:44:48 UTC 2009

Take a look at Sandy's website and go to the page called "articles" and follow the link to "unicode diacritics for signwriting".  I think that might be what Sandy is getting at...  Just a way to adapt current technology to the existing idea of SignWriting.

Natasha Escalada-Westland, M.Ed. (D/HH), Certified Interpreter - NIC



Date: Mon, 16 Nov 2009 06:03:29 -0800
From: chazzer3332000 at
Subject: Re: [sw-l] common criticisms of signwriting?
To: sandy at; sw-l at

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. 


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


SW-L SignWriting List

Post Message
SW-L at

List Archives and Help

Change Email Settings

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>
-------------- next part --------------


SW-L SignWriting List

Post Message
SW-L at

List Archives and Help

Change Email Settings

More information about the Sw-l mailing list