question about dictionaries

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Sat Apr 9 16:22:29 UTC 2011

SignWriting List
April 9, 2011

On Apr 8, 2011, at 10:51 AM, Erika Hoffmann wrote:
> In the article I am revising I want to address briefly in a footnote the issue of ordering of signs in SL dictionaries using SW. The reviewer of my article was speculating that Stokoe might have chosen to arrange the elements of a sign in a linear fashion to facilitate clear ordering of signs for the creation of dictionaries. S/he wondered how this issue is handled for SW. I have a sense of how the issue is approached, but I figured it was better to ask the list rather than risk getting it wrong in print! Thanks! Erika
> Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway
> Assistant Professor of Anthropology
> Oberlin College


Hello Erika and Charles -
Thank you for this question, Erika, and thank you, Charles, for sharing your work (which is below).

First, Erika, your reviewer has asked an understandable question, which is commonly asked. The answer is that SignWriting is sorted by Sign-Symbols daily in software, such as SignPuddle (and other software), and by hand by writers, and has been sorted by Sign-Symbols since the early 1980's, when we started using the term "Sign-Symbol-Sequence" which is equivalent to "alphabetical order for Sign-Symbols".

Second, writing horizontally with symbols in a string from left to right, like the Stokoe system, is not what Deaf writers have requested or need. Our skilled Deaf writers requested that we write in visual clusters - that is to say that the symbols are placed visually in relationship to each other, and this provides a true writing of the visual nature of sign languages... So writing horizontally...with each symbol one after the other from left to write like spoken languages in the western world, looses the important spatial relationships between handshapes, faces, head movement and other parts of the body... which is one of the reasons that Stokoe notation is not written on a daily basis by everyday was developed more for the linguistic research world... SignWriting was first and foremost developed for the everyday world so that signers have a tool in their daily lives... the writing in visual clusters is just natural to sign languages and natural to SignWriting...

So we do not need to write horizontally...we already sort by Sign-Symbols in another way...

So how do we sort dictionaries by Sign-Symbols?

First, we establish the "SignSpelling Sequence"...In SignPuddle for example, the writer of the sign adds their choice for the sequence of the symbols within one sign (word), called a SignSpelling Sequence, so SignPuddle knows how to sort the signs, based on 1) the SignSpelling Sequence, and then 2) once all the signs have a SignSpelling Sequence, then all the signs are sorted by the alphabetical order of the symbols in the International SignWriting Alphabet (Sign-Symbol-Sequence)...

Here is a screen capture of the SignSpelling column in SignPuddle where the writer adds their choice for a SignSpelling sequence:

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As Charles stated, there are different theories as to which symbol should come first, second or third in a SignSpelling. That is why SignPuddle is flexible and lets the writers choose. Here is my theory, in a little booklet from 2008: Sutton's SignSpelling Guidelines 2008. See attached:

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I am writing a better manual that will be "SignSpelling Guidelines 2011" but it is not ready yet.....

Hope this has helped - Thank you to you both -

Val ;-)


On Apr 8, 2011, at 12:04 PM, Charles Butler wrote:

> There are several schema out there.
> Mine tends to follow the following pretty closely.  This is the setup for the SW Sign Puddle as I tend to order signs. One could order by each feature, but this is usually the order that I take a sign in.  I did a schema published in Brazil which is on the SW site.
> Handshape (10 groups, ordered by the current dictionary by fingers used)
> Orientation (6 basic orientations)
> Rotation (8 rotations within the above rotations)
> Contact (with other hand, with head, with body) (four basic types of contact)
> Finger Movement (this takes care of squeezes, trills, and holds)
> Arm Movement (this is directions of the whole arm) (up and down, then in and out)
> Speed (slow, fast, gradual, simultaneous)
> Facial Expression (a bunch, but they have not been catalogued systematically)
> Charles Butler, once working for SignNet Project, Catholic University of Pelotas, Brazil


Val ;-)

Valerie Sutton
SignWriting List moderator
sutton at

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