common criticisms of signwriting?

Charles Butler chazzer3332000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Nov 19 18:47:48 UTC 2009

Dear Sandy,

I must interject that asking the linguistic community to independently revise or reduce SignWriting is like asking a non-speaker of Cherokee to revise the Cherokee alphabet because it is "too complicated."

When the "findings of modern linguistics" seem to avoid SignWriting even in international settings, including Brazil, where there are more people who use SignWriting on a daily basis than anywhere else in the world, I would hesitate to affirm your statement about "modern linguistic findings" as offering anything to the SignWriting community.  

The users of a writing system are its primary users, and when one has a corpus of more than 20,000 signs written in SignWriting in daily use that have been vetted by the Deaf as the primary users of the system, to have the "linguistic community" say "we can do better" seems a bit "over the top".  Considering simplifications of the system that can be read upon a glance by Deaf unfamiliar with the system would seem to require an actual cooperative venture of the "linguistic community" to sit down, and pay for, the primary users of SignWriting Deaf and consider "simplifications" for their use as the users of the system.

I am now working on a comparison between the SignTyp linguistic database which is a "descriptive" system in English to describe "production" of signs divorced from their morphemes.  If a grapheme is defined as a "minimum portion of a sign" that acts as a "minimal pair" then the only people who have the "primary" experience of "grapheme" differentiation are the Deaf users of signed languages, not non-users who are linguistics scientists.  For that reason, any creation or reduction of SignWriting as a linguistic methodology must have the Deaf as primary partners or it is science divorced from reason.

Having now read your paper on Unicode reduction of SignWriting, hoping for an ASCII reduction, I fear I must strongly disagree, as if one cannot "read" a system at a glance, then one is missing the mark by not using the actual user community to test.  If your system can reduce SignWriting for linguistic use and that can be proved academically with a user linguistic community that is actually willing to use SignWriting for comparison, then you may have a chance, but so far, the linguistic community in the United States has been avoiding SignWriting, starting with Gallaudet (which has not updated its library in years).  I show SignWriting to teachers all over Gallaudet, and they can read it immediately, but none of them are willing to "buck the system" for the sake of their salaries.

We are between a rock and a hard place.  We cannot prove our point in the United States, but must go abroad for open and welcoming communities.  If your community in the UK can do better, then more power to you, but one hopes that the Deaf and signed language user community will be a day-to-day guide to your simplifications and writing.


From: Sandy Fleming <sandy at>
To: SignWriting List <sw-l at>
Sent: Sun, November 15, 2009 5:44:48 AM
Subject: Re: [sw-l] common criticisms of signwriting?

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

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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