Common Criticisms &c

Sandy Fleming sandy at FLEIMIN.DEMON.CO.UK
Sat Nov 21 12:11:05 UTC 2009

Charles wrote:

> 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."

But there's nothing wrong with having a broad and deep understanding of
a subject, is there? There's also nothing wrong with people devising
alternative writing systems to explore all possibilities.

Note that all I'm doing is discussing this on the SignWriting list
because I feel that SignWriting can be improved and understanding
alternative possibilities helps to inform these improvements. I'll
expand on this in answer to the three original common criticisms in a
separate email.

I'm certainly not against the high readability (or transparency) of
SignWriting. This is the one really new thing in writing systems today
which I think could ultimately influence the way spoken languages are
written. It's not highly encoded (which is hard to learn), it's not
ideographic (which is too ad hoc) - in short, it's new and very

None of which means that it's the only way to write it  ;)

> 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.

True, but then again, Chinese has a vast number of primary users, and it
would seem that even after thousands of years there can be divisions as
to what's the best way to write it. In the 20th century, for example,
the whole system was revised and simplified (though the classical system
is still used in Taiwan), and by no means do all Chinese speakers agree
that this is a good thing, though many consider it a great advantage.
There have even been movements in China to have it written in a
western-style alphabet (I don't know what the current status of this
sort of thinking is).

It's normal for writing systems to have transliterations into
alternative alphabets. Chinese, Cyrillic, Arabic and so on have
standardised transliterations into the Latin alphabet, and it works the
other way too.

> 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.

This idea originated in oral-language linguistics and was applied to
sign languages by Stokoe, perhaps the original member of what you call
the "linguistic community".

> Having now read your paper on Unicode reduction of SignWriting, hoping
> for an ASCII reduction, I fear I must strongly disagree, as if one

Charles, Unicode is stored linearly in computer systems, so in order to
encode SignWriting (or Chinese, Mayan or anything else) as Unicode, we
have to devise a linear representation of SignWriting.

If you strongly disagree with this, you need to take it up with the
creators of Unicode, not me  :)



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