Ordering Signs

Christopher Miller christophermiller at MAC.COM
Thu Nov 26 18:05:37 UTC 2009

Just  a short note about the origin of standard alphabetical order: it actually descends from one of two orders used in the ancient Ugaritic alphabet ca 14th century BCE. (Scroll down to "Alphabetic order" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphabet.) The order has been kept overall in all the non-Indic descendants of the West Semitic alphabets except for the reformed Arabic alphabet, which nevertheless kept it for letters used as numerals like the way we use a, b, c... in lists. The chart from the primer that you cite is rather ingenious in the way it tries to shoehorn the alphabetically ordered letters into aligning by place of articulation but nearly as many letters fall through the cracks as fit into the arrangement. 

Using conventional alphabetic orders for the handshapes of different sign languages, following the handshape-letter pairings in various manual alphabets, has the advantage (in each sign language) of using an order familiar from the surrounding written version of the spoken language, but there are always more handshapes than those in the manual alphabet, and the ones in the manual alphabet are not all necessarily used in signs themselves, as opposed to representing written letters for fingerspelling. And, in two-handed alphabets like the British manual alphabet or other older ones used in Italy, Indonesia or North America, a printed letter does not usually correspond to a single given handshape and vice versa. ANd of course, there are many more symbols apart from handshapes in any system for writing or notating signs, whether Signwriting, Stokoe, Hamnosys or any other: locations, movements etc. 

So whatever the system, the best choice is to base the collation order on aspects of the actual structure of the handshapes and other structural elements used to make signs. Still, once you start on this basis, there are lots of choices, some of them essentially arbitrary, as to what groups of symbols, and what symbols within these groups, should be placed in what order. 

On 2009-11-26, at 12:10 PM, Charles Butler wrote:

> I understand your concern that SW is too young to mandate an order as it may grow linguistically for some situations.  However, the groups of handshapes are by fingers used, so though they are also ASL numbers, they are based on which fingers are being used in a sign, which makes them very useful in clustering signs together that all use the "index finger", the "index and middle finger", the "index finger, middle, and thumb", the "four fingers", "the four fingers and thumb", "the thumb and small finger", the "thumb and ring finger", the "thumb and index finger" and the "thumb/fist".  
> One can cluster in any number of ways.  Just as aside, the Roman Alphabet is thought to have been based on a primer
> A B C D 
> E F G     H
> I          J
>        K     L
>    M     N
> O P Q     R
>             S
>             T
> U V W X Y
>             Z
> There are missing sounds, but a grid in order of vowels, bilabials, gutterals, dentals, and liquids seems to work for me.
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