What is SignWriting?

Valerie Sutton Sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Tue May 28 19:55:50 UTC 2002

SignWriting List
May 28, 2002

Hillary Hittner asked:
>How would you define SignWriting?

Val's answer:

What is SignWriting?

SignWriting is a writing system which uses visual symbols to
represent the handshapes, movements, and facial expressions of signed
languages. It is a kind of an "alphabet" - a list of symbols used to
write any signed language in the world.

The SignWriting alphabet can be compared to the alphabet we use to
write English, the Roman alphabet. The Roman alphabet can be used to
write many different spoken languages. While each language may add or
subtract one or two symbols, the same basic symbols we use to write
English are used to write Danish, German, French and Spanish. The
Roman alphabet is international, but the languages it writes are not.

In the same way, the symbols in the SignWriting alphabet are
international and can be used to write American Sign Language, Danish
Sign Language, Norwegian Sign Language, British Sign Language, Dutch
Sign Language - any signed language you choose.

SignWriting makes it possible to have books, newspapers, magazines,
dictionaries, and literature written in signs. It can be used to
teach signs and signed language grammar to beginning signers, or it
can be used to teach other subjects, such as math, history, or
English to skilled signers.

Hillary asked:
>Why do we need SignWriting?

Val's answer:

Why write Sign Language?

Why do people read and write spoken languages?

Whatever the answer is to that question, the answers are the same for
writing signed languages. The only difference is that we are writing
a series of languages that use movement, instead of sound. But
otherwise the issues are the same.

There are some who argue that signed languages do not need to be
written! No language has to be written - but when we do, we all are
richer for it.

SignWriting was not designed to replace any language or writing
system. It was developed to provide a written form for hundreds of
languages that did not have any written form before. And some Deaf
people and signers benefit from writing their native Sign Language,
which is very different than any spoken language.

Reading and writing makes it easier to learn other languages, it
preserves the history and traditions of the culture, and it has a
profound influence on the rest of the world. When a language is
written, it places it on an equal footing with other written
languages, which brings the language attention and respect. Through
this process, those who use the language learn about their own
culture. They see themselves in a new positive light.

And this is true for Deaf people who use a Sign Language too. Some
are born into Deaf families that use a Sign Language at home.
Learning to read and write their native language is a help to them,
and can give them a feeling of pride.

Hillary asked:
>Does it work better than Stoke Notation?

Val's answer:
SignWriting and the Stokoe Notation System were invented for
different reasons, for different groups of people, serving different
needs. Comparing the two systems is like comparing a train with an
automobile...which form of transportation is better? Both serve their
purpose depending on the circumstances. SignWriting, like the
automobile, has the goal of reaching everyday people in their
everyday environment. It can be used in research, but it was not
designed for research. Stokoe notation was designed for research, and
not for writing children's stories and complete novels, like Moby
Dick, in American Sign Language. Dr. Stokoe told me personally he did
not design his notation system for born-deaf children to read and

Comparisons of the two systems are on this web page:

>Shoudn't those learning SignWriting be exposed to it daily?

Yes!! Absolutely!!

Valerie Sutton
Inventor, SignWriting

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