[sw-l] Detailed and Simplified Entries in Dictionaries

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Sun Jun 19 16:16:13 UTC 2005

SignWriting List
June 19, 2005

Dear SW List -
I think our last series of messages about the sign for WALLET in ASL,
hightlights an important issue regarding the development of the
International Movement Writing Alphabet (the IMWA). Steve has given
us an enormous gift in SignMaker...the use of the IMWA before it is
finished. I am adding new symbols to the IMWA while you are using it.
The new symbols are not really new. They are symbols that are used
right now, in different countries, or in older documents. But they
are not in the IMWA yet.

To be able to use the IMWA before it is finished is amazing...for me
too...because some of these symbols have been used without
documentation, and so I am chasing to catch up with creating lessons
for symbols that some of you have never seen! smile...And meanwhile I
have more symbols to add...so it is hard for me to give you the
proper textbook instruction you deserve. But it will come in
time...that is why I hope you will continue to ask questions on the
SW List...it helps me too, because it shows me what symbols are hard
to learn...

So Steve's gift to us...the use of the IMWA in a computer
program...is stimulating a faster resolution to the different ways of
writing in 30 countries, and giving us a forum to discuss it all...so
we are fortunate indeed.

Did you know, for example, in spoken languages that use the Roman
alphabet, that some languages use more alphabetic symbols than
others? For example, the English alphabet uses 26 letters (symbols).
But in Danish, they use three more...so they have 29...So people
using each spoken language, years ago, had to determine what letters
(symbols) they needed to write their specific spoken language. I call
that a language-specific symbolset. The International Phonetic
Alphabet (the IPA) is not language-specific. It is more general and
is an attempt to be language-neutral, attempting to write exact
sounds rather than specific languages (I realize this is a
simplification, but generally I believe that was the idea behind the

People may have the mis-impression, that they need to learn EVERY
symbol in the IMWA. But that would not be realistic, nor would it be
necessary. Each signed language only uses SOME of the symbols in the
IMWA. When people create signs in SignMaker, they choose the symbols
they need, and after awhile, they know where those specific symbols
are located. They are really writing with a smaller symbolset, even
though they are accessing the entire IMWA through SignMaker. That
smaller subset of symbols is the beginning of a language-specific

Steve added a new feature to SignPuddle recently, called Search by
Symbol Frequency. This is an excellent feature, because once you have
around 500 signs in your dictionary, when you go to the area called
Symbol Frequency, you can see immediately which handshapes were used
in your 500 signs. As your dictionary builds, the Symbol Frequency
section gives us the information we will need later, to pin down the
language-specific symbolset for your Sign Language.

So first, I want you to know that I feel your pain...smile...I know
you all have a hard job, trying to determine which symbols you need
to write with, from such a large group of symbols in the IMWA. Future
generations will not be in the pioneering position you are in today,
but I hope you can enjoy the process like an adventure. You can telll
your grandchildren about it - ha!

And second, the issue of phonetic and phonemic, or if you wish to
call them cheretic and cheremic...whatever term is used...We can
choose to write a sign in a very detailed way (phonetic) or a more
simiplified way (phonemic), and neither are wrong or right...both
have their place. The detailed spellings are more for research and
for an exact-pronunciation-guide, and the simplified spellings are
more for children, beginners, and everyday documents for reading
pleasure. We do not read novels, in the English language, in the
IPA...that would not be for pleasure, because it is too much detail.

So I suggest that in our dictionary entries, later, when we have true
published dictionaries, that we include both the simplified and
detailed spelling for each sign, so that people have a pronunciation-
guide, but also a way to write quickly that others read quickly. That
would be similar to spoken language dictionaries which include both too.

Right now in SignPuddle we are learning the difference between what
is detailed, and what is acceptable as simplified...so it will take a
little time to determine this...but this is what I foresee for the
future of dictionaries in SignWriting.

What are your thoughts about this?

Val ;-)

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