Report on the Workshop at Gallaudet University

Adam Frost icemandeaf at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 24 20:16:20 UTC 2011

As several of you already know, I gave a presentation on SignWriting at a workshop at Gallaudet this past weekend. The title of the workshop was "Building sign language corpora in North America". A corpus is essentially a collection of data, or in this case a collection of data on Sign Language in North America that can be called upon for various researches in Sign Language Linguistics. There were a good number of people from various parts of the world including Spain, Germany, and Australia. There were about 50 people in attendance, most of whom had some work in the field of linguistics.

The presentation that I presented was called "Sign Language Corpus with SignWriting". I gave a short history on SignWriting and how it has been used in various capacities in various countries writing the world's sign languages. Because SignWriting is based on the features of Sign Languages, I explained how it can be used to build a corpus so that features of Sign Languages can be searched and not only limited to signs as a whole. I then gave an example with a short part of the Cat in the Hat showing how this could be done with Handshapes, Movements, etc. The reason this was possible was because of the work with UTF-8 code that is available with SignPuddle. This also makes it possible to work seamlessly with a program that many linguists in the US already use, ELAN. The only problem is that as of now they cannot see the actual symbols without some sort of plug-in, but it is still very searchable regardless. 

I then explained that there are some differences with daily writing versus writing for analytical use. For example, there are symbols that can be used to encode location that are not used in everyday writing because the relations of the symbols imply the location. I also mentioned that there are times that beginning or ending hands or even contact symbols are not written in everyday writing because it is understood, but would most likely be necessary for analytical purposes. 

Some comments that I got from those in the audience were: Why SignWriting isn't more widely used as a written form for ASL in the US, since it has been around for over 30 years? It is obviously a very powerful tool. My response was that written forms take many years, if not generations, before it is accepted. Take a look at English, which had many illiterate users for many generations regardless of it been written for so many generations. There was also another commenter who felt that I was suggesting that SignWriting be the only thing used in a corpus. My reply was quite the opposite. I explained that there might be some research that will greatly benefit from the analytical power that SignWriting has to offer while others might not gain anything from it. My suggestion was to have a place within the corpus for SignWriting as a tool available for those who will benefit from it.

Overall, it was a very good workshop and my presentation was received very well. The people who put together the workshop have also created a blog for those who want to know more about what happened. For those who would like to take a look at the Power Point that I used, I will send it to the list in my next message.

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