why signwriting in 21st century

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Tue Aug 7 20:10:22 UTC 2007

SignWriting List
August 7, 2007

On Aug 7, 2007, at 12:53 PM, Honza wrote:
> as you know when telling people about SignWriting there are always  
> people saying "thats good think" and another people saying "why SW  
> when we have cameras, computers..  there is no sence writing sign  
> language when it is easier just to record it on camera" . I always  
> answer but don't have camera or computer always by you.. what is  
> your opinion, what would you answer? thank all of you..   (If there  
> are enought answer I will publish your answer in Czech deaf  
> magazine) - thats not warning at all ;)  Honza


Hello Honza!
I hope everyone answers too! ;-))

Here is one description on our SignWriting web site:

There are several good answers from some List members below,  
including Charles Butler (thank you, Charles!) and Chip McGruder, who  
is no longer on the List but is still using SignWriting in South  
Korea....(thank you, Chip!)...

Hope this helps!  Val ;-)


Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 1

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.


Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 2

SignWriting is not a philosophy. It is simply a way to read and write  

Reading and writing has many applications in life - It is up to the  
writers to make their decisions, as to how they want to apply it.

So SignWriting is used differently in 18 countries. Some groups use  
it for research - for example - a research project at Salk Institute  
is using SignWriting to record classifiers, because English gloss is  
not adequate enough. Other groups use it in Deaf Education, such as  
the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project and the Concordia School For  
Deaf Children in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And some teachers use  
SignWriting in classes to record signs for their hearing students in  
vocabulary lists, such as the classes for parents of deaf children,  
in Denmark and Norway.

The SignWriting Literacy Project, which is free to schools using  
American Sign Language (ASL), donates Sign Language Literature to  
classrooms with Deaf students. Some teachers use the SignWriting  
materials to teach ASL, and others use them to teach English. In  
other words, SignWriting can be applied differently in each  
classroom, depending on the teacher.


Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 3

...regarding this question....

"What is the purpose of translating the relatively universal standard  
of using written letters, words, and sentences to communicate an idea  
or thought, into a completely new format / language?"

May 27, 2001
William J. "Chip" McGruder answered:

To me, this is the key for why SignWriting came into existence.  
First, the so-called universal standard of using written letters does  
not use the same written letters.  There are various alphabets with  
no relationship to each other; some alphabets are in reality  
syllabaries; some languages use ideograms; and others use letters  
which don't represent the sounds of the language at all well.

Second, it is possible to use a translation of what the Sign Language  
sentence is; however, as in all translations, this is nowhere near  
perfect.   One will always lose something in the translation.  On the  
other hand, if one grows up using SignWriting to record on paper his  
or her native Sign Language, then he or she will have a record which  
can be read with no loss of understanding.

Third, SignWriting makes it possible to compare different Sign  
Languages. Consider for a moment your assertion about "universal  
standard of using written letters."  If one were to record a sentence  
originally formed in American Sign Language, one would then,  
presumably, record that in written English.  The next step, if you  
were to have this read by someone in, say, Oman, would be to  
translate the English sentence into Arabic. Then finally, the Omani  
Signer would have to read that Arabic sentence and consider what he  
or she believed the translation - provided on the spot - would be in  
Arabic (or Omani) Sign Language.  Thus you have three translations,  
all involving some loss of meaning due to the nature of translation.   
Using SignWriting, which records the actual movements made by the  
original Signer, the individual at the Omani end of the above  
sequence would know what movements the original Signer had made.

This leads to my fourth point.  One could very well have a parallel  
dictionary showing, say, American Sign Language on one side and the  
accepted translations into Arabic Sign Language on the other. Thus, a  
competent translator would only have to parse one, not three,  
translations to convey the message.

Fifth, this sequence can also assist the Deaf in learning the local  
written language.  Since the local written languages are those used  
to record the spoken language, this does not convey accurately the  
knowledge needed at the outset of learning to write.  There is just  
no comparison between the written word and the language known by the  
Deaf equivalent to the comparison of the written word to the language  
known by the hearing individual.  It's just not possible to "sound  
out" the word in English if one is not able to hear English.

Sixth, for those of us who do hear (I'm not Deaf), I supplement my  
notecards for when I have to give training, with SignWriting showing  
what I should do with my hands to make a consistent point.  This way  
I don't have to use two cards for the same instant in the speech.

Lastly, I want to reiterate Valerie's point about respect for a  
language.   Sequoyah of the Cherokee Tribe in the United States  
recognized that, in the modern world (over a 100 years ago), a  
language had to have a written form.  He considered that the  
Europeans' power was manifest in their writing.   Sequoyah then  
invented one for his people.  Since he didn't know how to read or  
write English, his syllabary uses some of the Roman letters but for  
different sounds, and some symbols he just made up.  The Sequoyah  
Syllabary was accepted by the Cherokee and is still in use today to  
record that language.  Many hearing people have said that a language  
with no written form isn't a language.  Of course that's patently  
false, but it does point to the perception held by many that Sign  
Language isn't really a language.

Having its own written form, Sign Languages around the world can come  
out of the dark, so to speak, and be studied in the same manner that  
other languages are. In my opinion, the written form of SignWriting  
itself may even entice some people into learning the local Sign  
Language and thus enhance acceptance of both the Sign Language and  
those who use it.

William J. "Chip" McGruder
Marina, California, USA


Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 4

...regarding this question....

"What is the purpose of translating the relatively universal standard  
of using written letters, words, and sentences to communicate an idea  
or thought, into a completely new format / language?"

May 28, 2001
Charles Butler answered:

"Relatively universal standard of writing spoken languages" is an  
excellent phrase.

For "written languages", at least 12 writing systems that I am aware  
of (not including signed languages) are used as everyday writing  
(newspapers for wide distribution for example):

Hebrew - Hebrew alphabet - one ancestor of Roman alphabet, script is  
not known to many non-Jews. Used to write Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish.

Arabic script - Used every day by 1/6 of the world's population. The  
rules for writing it are arcane, a word, if written in the Roman  
alphabet letter for letter, would look mispelled.

Amharic script - Used by Ethiopians, based on Hebrew script, syllabary.

Chinese script - Used by most Chinese, this is NOT an alphabet, but a  
"character" system which is in fact, writing ancient sign language  
into a form used to translate 22 mutually unintelligible spoken  
languages of China into a single written language.

Japanese - syllabary, based on the "appearance" of Chinese script.

Roman alphabet - used, in some way, with some variants, for many of  
the nations of Europe and the Romance languages throughout the world.  
Based on Greek, Hebrew, and other ancient alphabets.

Cyrillic script - based on Greek, used by all of the Russian and  
former Russian republics.

Shorthand - a reduced form of writing "sounded languages" like  
English. Requires special training but is quick to write and interpret.

Sanskrit - One of three alphabets in daily use in India, three  
thousand year history. India has to have computer systems that can  
interpret Roman, Sanskrit, and Arabic scripts.

Greek - used by Greek-speaking peoples the world over.

Cherokee - developed for everyday use by Sequoyah, based on both  
Roman letters and ancient Cherokee writing.

Korean - based on the shape of sounds in the mouth, Korean words  
"look" like characters from Chinese, but are in fact readable  

For signed languages, we are indeed fortunate to have one system that  
can write all of them.

Charles Butler


Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 5

Another reason for having a written Sign Language.

- The Hearing/Listening members of Deaf families.

Imagine, if you will, a parent, having a Deaf child, but not able to  
read the signs of sign language because they move so rapidly. If they  
are written down, they are the same signs, the same grammar, but,  
THEY DON'T MOVE. They can be reviewed, looked over, studied, and  
pondered, and questions can be asked about them.

I could imagine, years hence, a person fluent in written ASL who  
cannot read a single word of it on a person's hands, but is  
completely fluent in the written language.

Charles Butler



No. SignWriting is not a language. It can be compared to an  
"alphabet". Alphabets are not languages themselves. They are tools  
used to record languages that already exist.

Signed and spoken languages were not written languages from the  
beginning. They were "spoken" or "signed" for centuries without a  
written form.

A, B and C have no meaning by themselves. It took time to develop a  
good way to read and write the sounds of spoken languages using A, B  
and C. It took centuries before reading and writing spoken languages  
was taught in schools.

In the same way, the SignWriting symbols have no meaning by  
themselves. SignWriting is a set of visually-designed symbols used to  
record the movements of any signed language. SignWriting records  
exactly how people sign, without changing the signed language being  

Who knows? Maybe it won't take centuries before reading and writing  
signs is taught in schools for the Deaf! That may be true partly  
because of the advent of computers. Computers seem to be "speeding  
up" the process.

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