When are Sign Languages considered written languages?

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Fri Jan 27 03:01:02 UTC 2006

SignWriting List
January 26, 2006

Dear SW List Members:

Today, a native ASL Deaf signer wrote to ask this question...Is ASL  
really a written language yet?

That is an interesting question...How many people have to read and  
write a language, before the language can be called a written language?

And this question was then discussed very nicely on the Sign Language  
Linguists List today...smile...

Here are my thoughts on this topic...

When Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian chief, wrote letters to his  
daughter in the symbols he invented, and she understood his messages,  
and they wrote back and forth...they were using a written language  
that no one else in their tribe used...over time, more and more  
people started using the writing system....but even when it was only  
the two of them, it was still a written language...for them  
only...not for others who didn't want to write.

If there are only two people writing to each other in ASL, then for  
them, it is a written language...maybe others will never choose to  
read and write, and maybe it will change enormously in the next  
decade, or maybe no one will ever use it, or maybe it will become  
widespread...I have no idea...but I do know that there are some  
people writing to each other in ASL right now, and for those people,  
it is a written form...

I know of hundreds in the US and I know of thousands world wide who  
read and write signs daily...and so for a very few people...there is  
a writing system that is working and is being used as a part of their  

So when people say that ASL is not written, that is not accurate...It  
may be the truth for the majority, but the minority who DO write have  
a right to be acknowledged too...

So for me, a language can be a written language, even when only a few  
are reading and writing it...English was only written by the educated  
elite for centuries...Everyday people, in the Middle Ages, did not  
know how to write. But English was a written language in the Middle  
Ages, nonetheless, even though only a small group knew how to read  
and write...

My thoughts for today...smile...and I would love your feedback!

Val ;-)

Valerie Sutton
Sutton at SignWriting.org

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