USA Informing ASL Teachers About SignWriting

Steve Slevinski slevin at SIGNPUDDLE.NET
Mon Jan 30 15:59:52 UTC 2006

Hi Val,

These messages asking if sign languages can be written have really 
troubled me.  Every day people are reading and writing a multitude of 
sign languages around the world.  There is no way to deny that sign 
langauges are written.

So I was trying to understand how someone could deny such a plain 
truth.  I came up with 3 possibilities: ignorance, pride, and politics.

The first reason is ignorance.  They just don't know about the existence 
or extent of SignWriting.  This is the most common reason and the main 
obstacle that we are trying to overcome.  The best course of action is 
to read, write, and share.  What we do best!

The second reason is pride.  Many signers take pride in their language, 
and they should.  But once they realize that it is possible to write the 
language that they are so proud of, they must admit that they are 
illiterate in the langauge they love.  Becoming literate in sign 
languages takes time and effort.  If you consider yourself fluent in a 
sign language, it can be easier to dismiss literacy than admit you have 
a lot to learn.  This is a very real problem and what you may have 
experienced on the Teach ASL List.  We need to appeal to their love of 
the language.  We need to express the view that we sign writers are not 
superior.  We need to reach out to them and let them know they are 
desperately needed to help improve the existing writing.  Future 
generations of writers will be influenced by the writing we do today.  
If we are to have good writing we not only need people who are literate, 
but people who are fluent.

The last reason is the most insidious: politics.  Some signers take the 
view that it is better if their language is not written.  They consider 
it a defining characteristic.  Other signers reject SignWriting because 
it wasn't invented by someone who was deaf.  For these people, we need 
to discuss the benefits of writing.  We also need to explain the history 
of SignWriting and how the deaf have been involved from day one.  
SignWriting is not a system that was developed in isolation and then 
handed to the deaf from on high.  It is a living writing system that has 
been developed in a spirit of cooperation that not only included deaf 
and hearing, but signers from all over the world.

And so we come to the reason I become involved with SignWriting many 
years ago.  I love literacy.  The question for me isn't "Can we write?" 
but "Why do we write?"  and "What are the benefits of writing?" and "Why 
do we read?"  and "What are the benefits of reading?"

One of my favorite books is "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer J. Adler, 
Charles Van Doren.  It discusses the 4 levels of reading: elementary, 
inspectional, analytical, syntopical.  .  Being able to make out the 
symbols and understand the syntax and grammar of language is only the 
first level of reading. There is so much more to learn and experience.  
But for the higher levels of reading we need more to read.  So let's get 

Anyway, these are some of the thoughts that have been on my mind,

Valerie Sutton wrote:

> SignWriting List
> January 29, 2006
> to a List member who thought SignWriting was a foreign language and  
> not a writing system for ASL...and who mentioned Dr. Stokoe...Here  
> was my reply:
> ----------------------
> Val wrote:
> I can see that you truly love ASL, and I do too. I respect it so  
> much, that I want to write it on paper, just as it is, without  
> changing ASL at all, but preserving in on paper so we can learn the  
> grammar of ASL on paper...A little like a video that captures ASL  
> just as it is, we are writing those ASL videos on paper, so we can  
> analyze the movements and try to understand ASL better...Writing ASL  
> is not another language. ASL is the language. Writing it with symbols  
> is simply a doumentation of the same language.
> It is the same with written English...written and spoken English are  
> not two separate languages...they are just two forms...the written  
> and the spoken...
> I was very fortunate to know Dr. Stokoe a little. My first  
> presentation on SignWriting in the USA in 1977 was with Dr. Stokoe.  
> We shared the podium together at a conference in Chicago. He would  
> write a sign in his system. And then I would write the same sign in  
> SignWriting. We presented to a full room that was so jammed, people  
> were standing in the back, pushing to get in...It was a great memory...
> Dr. Stokoe told me that he did not invent his system for everyday  
> was for his linguistic work. SignWriting, on the other hand,  
> was invented specifically to record storytelling, giving us ASL  
> Literature, novels and books, used by people outside of the  
> linguistic fields...SignWriting started with facial expressions, but  
> the Stokoe system did not have facial expressions when it began, and  
> cannot write facial expressions and mime the way SignWriting can...
> So Dr. Stokoe agreed with me, at this presentation, that our two  
> systems were not developed for the same reasons, and therefore should  
> not be compared, since their purposes are totally different -
> Val ;-)

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