Joe Martin's Research on SignWriting University South Carolina 2007

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Wed Jan 11 17:58:09 UTC 2012

SignWriting List
January 11.2012

Hello Maria and Joe -

Below are excerpts from the message that Joe sent me, asking me to post the article - Other than this information, I do not know the dates - Joe is on the List I believe - so Joe if you are reading this, please write to tell us…smile….

As you can see by the message below, Joe says that he wrote the article about 5 years ago, and he wrote that message on April 22, 2011 - so I would guess around 2006?

But if you open the .odt (Open Office file) attached, it says 2005 at the top of the paper -

Val ;-)


On Apr 22, 2011, at 7:24 PM, Joe Martin wrote:

> Hello Valerie;
> It's great to see how all your efforts have produced fruit. 
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: smile.png
Type: image/png
Size: 960 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <>
-------------- next part --------------
> Cleaning out some old files, I stumbled over this paper I wrote for you about five years ago.  I don't know if you ever got it, so I'm sending it to you now as an attachment.  It may be a little dated but still accurate--at the time there was some discussion of what kind of beast SW was, alphabet or whatever.   
> Please let me know if you get this OK. Also, new email address if anybody wants it.   
> --Joe Martin  
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: sw terms.odt
Type: application/vnd.oasis.opendocument.text
Size: 27305 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <>
-------------- next part --------------


On May 2, 2011, at 2:27 PM, Joe Martin wrote:

> Hi Valerie;
> Joe here; Yes, I'm on the list, and would like if you posted the article. It's not of just historic interest though, people are still confused about this topic and asking these questions. You yourself explained most of this once again in your Dec 4 post, and I think it might be good to have a reference to refer to. I'm qualified to write one, and I tried to bridge the huge gap between public perception and what linguists actually talk about, in our obscure jargon. I'd be willing to edit any parts that may have become dated or whatever.


On Jan 10, 2012, at 5:04 PM, MARIA GALEA wrote:

> Thank you for posting this article Val a little while ago - I enjoyed
> reading this Joe, thank you and have found it useful. Does the article
> come with a date please, as I will very probably be referring to this
> article soon.
> thanks
> maria
>> SignWriting List
>> October 11, 2011
>> Joe also gave us a short write up on SignWriting Terminology that he
>> thought might be interesting to share, since years ago people discussed
>> terminology relating to SignWriting all the time - I remember reading some
>> really heated discussions about what terms to use when discussing the
>> reading and writing of sign here is Joe's old paper on this
>> topic, which is now posted at:
>> SignWriting Terminology
>> by Joe Martin
>> SignWriting is so new, and so radically different, that the words in our
>> ordinary vocabulary don’t apply to it.  When people see it for the first
>> time they are often confused about what it is.  A new language? A new
>> alphabet?  Finding the right words to explain this can be hard.  Even many
>> linguists are not familiar with the terms we need to discuss SignWriting,
>> but such words do exist.  It’s important that we look for them, and that
>> we all agree on the right words to use, because we all want to give
>> accurate information.
>> We can say SignWriting is a notation.  Notations are any system for
>> writing things down; not only languages but also things like music scores
>> or the e=mc2 of mathematics.  If we want to limit ourselves to writing
>> only languages, we can call the notation a script.  Scripts are writing
>> systems for languages, and traditionally there are three kinds.  The
>> alphabet is one kind of script, and the other two kinds are the syllabary
>> and the logography.  Since the alphabet is the only one that is familiar
>> to most of us, it is tempting to say that SignWriting is an alphabet for
>> writing signed languages.  That, however, is not correct.
>> By definition an alphabet uses symbols (letters) to stand for the smallest
>> sound segments (phonemes) of the language. The spoken language is broken
>> up into segments, and the symbols are used to represent them.  For example
>> the four symbols <e>, <o>, <r>, and <x>, are used for the six
>> sound-segments heard in the word “xerox.”  Then we use some system to
>> relate the symbols to the order we hear the sounds.
>> A syllabary is the same as an alphabet except that instead of just sounds,
>> the symbols stand for whole syllables, usually a consonant plus a vowel.
>> For example the Cree language uses a syllabary.  In writing Cree, the
>> symbol < ? > stands for the syllable “ni” and < ? > stands for “pi.”  The
>> Cree word for water, nipi, is written < ?? >.  The important thing is that
>> these letters, sounds, and syllables are all what linguists call segments.
>> This means they are sequential units that occur one after another.
>> SignWriting does not work like this, so it is neither a syllabary nor an
>> alphabet.
>> In one way SignWriting is like the third type of script, a logography.
>> This type of script uses a different symbol for each word.  Many of the
>> characters used for writing Chinese are like this.  Like these Chinese
>> characters, each word written in SignWriting has its own unique form.  The
>> dictionary tells us that “character" just means any written symbol, and
>> the term character seems to fit quite well for these SignWritten words.
>> For the smaller elements that make up the character we can keep the word
>> symbol.  (Technically, these smaller units are called graphs, but to avoid
>> another new term, we can just call them symbols.)  A Chinese character
>> though, is made up of just lines and dots that have no phonetic meaning.
>> By contrast, the handshapes, movement arrows, and other symbols that make
>> up a SignWriting character most definitely do have phonetic values.  So
>> SignWriting is not a logography either. It is not any of the three kinds
>> of script.
>> Otto Jesperson (1889) described a fourth type of script.  He called it an
>> antalphabetic system1.    The idea was to use, not arbitrary symbols, but
>> symbols that would show how the speech sounds are made.  Any written
>> character is composed of smaller elements like dots and lines.  Speech
>> sounds are also composed of smaller elements.  They are what linguists
>> call phonetic features--tongue placement, voicing, lip rounding.  Several
>> of these features combine to make one speech sound.  Jesperson’s
>> antalphabetic script linked these phonetic features with the lines and
>> dots of the written character. The symbols in such a script don’t stand
>> for sounds but for these smaller elements of the sounds.  It takes several
>> of these feature-symbols to make up one character.  That is the definition
>> of an antalphabetic script.
>> Geoffrey Sampson (1985) described some real scripts that indicate phonetic
>> features.  One is Pitman Shorthand, which uses a dark line for voiced
>> sounds and a light line for unvoiced sounds.  Which way the line slants
>> shows where the sound is made, and the straightness of the line shows how
>> it is made.  His other example is the script used in Korea.  Some of its
>> symbols use a horizontal line for the roof of the mouth, and where a
>> second line contacts this one shows where in the mouth the sound is made.
>> The shape of the second line tells how the sound is made.  The script adds
>> an extra line to the symbol for the “tense aspirated” sounds that are
>> common in Korean.  A diagram of the mouth indicates sounds made with the
>> lips.
>> Incidentally, notice how these symbols are not just arbitrary.  Their
>> creator designed them to be schematic diagrams of the body parts that make
>> the sounds.  Linguists find this very impressive.  Because of this
>> characteristic and because it is featural, the Korean script is often
>> called the world’s best writing system.  Both these characteristics
>> though, are much more present in SignWriting.
>> However, both the Korean script and Pitman Shorthand are only partly
>> featural.  Samson cites the feature grids used by linguists as purely
>> featural, but notes that these grids are “too cumbersome” to use as a
>> script.  He stresses that any scripts “used in real life are not really
>> pure, textbook examples of one or another of these categories”(42).  So up
>> till now the world has had no good examples of this featural, or
>> antalphabetic fourth type of script.  Abercrombie 1967 defines it as a
>> script that “represents each segment by a composite symbol made up of a
>> number of signs put together”(112).   This describes SignWriting
>> perfectly.  It is a featural, antalphabetic script.  SignWriting is an
>> antalphabet.  We can say it is an antalphabet used to write signed
>> languages, just the same as an alphabet is used for spoken languages.
>> A set of rules telling how to use a script for any particular language is
>> called an orthography.  Spanish, English and Vietnamese are all written
>> using the same alphabetic script, but the rules are different.  Vietnamese
>> doesn’t use the letter < f >;  Spanish does.  Spanish writes < ll >;
>> English writes < y >.  Spanish puts a question mark in front of a
>> sentence; English puts it at the end.  Each language has its own rules for
>> how to use the script.
>> Different languages written with SignWriting also have different
>> orthographies.  Spanish Sign Language uses SignWriting’s contact symbol.
>> Danish Sign Language doesn’t.  Nicaraguan Sign Language underlines proper
>> names.  American Sign Language doesn’t.  These languages are written in
>> SignWriting script, but with different orthographies.
>> To talk about signed languages some people still think that we shouldn’t
>> use the terms phonetic, phonemes or phonology.  This is because the
>> “phon-“ in these words came for the Latin word for “sound.”  Also, many
>> people think phonemes are sounds. This is not accurate.  The phoneme is
>> just an abstract theoretical idea, neither a sound nor anything visible.
>> It happens that they were always expressed in sound, but there was always
>> a theoretical possibility of them being something else.  Then sign
>> language came along, and now we see that they can be expressed in signs or
>> sounds, and possibly even in touch.
>> Many people confuse phonemes and cheremes.  Originally these were thought
>> to be equivalents, but research has clearly shown that they are different
>> things.  Cheremes are the handshapes, movements and such that make up a
>> sign.  They happen at the same time. That’s impossible for phonemes, since
>> by definition phonemes happen one after the other.  So cheremes and
>> phonemes are two different things.
>> If “chereme” was going to replace a word used for speech, the word would
>> be “parameter”, not phoneme. Parameters are what we use to describe vowels
>> {height, frontness...}, consonants {manner, place...} and now signs
>> {movement, location...}.  Chereme and parameter refer to exactly the same
>> thing, although nobody uses either one of these terms, except linguists.
>> ASL was recognized as a language when scientists proved it has all the
>> levels of linguistic structure.  Phonology is one of these levels, along
>> with syntax, morphology and phonetics.  If it didn’t have them, it
>> wouldn’t be a language.  The terminology doesn’t refer to what form the
>> linguistic units (segments) may take, but to how they are organized.
>> However the units may look or sound, they are organized the same way.
>> By now every important phonological theory has been used successfully with
>> sign language. In other words, theories developed to describe spoken
>> language all describe signed languages just as well. This is what we
>> expect, since all languages have a phonological, and a phonetic,
>> structure.  There is no shortage today of papers, books, and even
>> international conferences discussing aspects of sign language phonetics
>> and phonology, where people use these words without any qualifications.
>> They have become standard terms.  The fact that the name “phon-” is Latin
>> for sound shouldn’t bother us any more than the fact that “phony”
>> originally meant a gold-plated ring; or that Greenland is mostly ice.
>> SignWriting is an antalphabet that shows us the phonology of signed
>> languages in just the same way as our alphabet shows us the phonology of
>> speech. Its written characters are made up of symbols that show phonetic
>> details. Like the alphabet, it is a type of notation and uses different
>> orthographies for different languages. It is a way to read and write any
>> signed language, just as the alphabet is one way to read and write spoken
>> language.
>> Abercrombie, D. 1967. Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
>> University Press
>> Anderson, S.R. 1993. “Linguistic Expression and its Relation to Modality”
>> in Phonetics and Phonology: Current Issues in ASL Phonology
>> iconicity p116 , also the best argument against using the term phonology
>>   HV2474.C87
>> Coulmas, Florian. 1996. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford,
>> U.K.:Blackwell.
>> Daniels, Peter T. 1996. “The Study of Writing Systems”  in Daniels, Peter
>> T. & Bright, William (eds) The Worlds Writing Systems. NY:
>> Oxford.		P211.w714
>> DeFrancis, John. Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems.
>> Honolulu: U of Hawaii Press.							P211.d36
>> Gelb. 1980. “Principles of writing systems within the frames of visual
>> communication” in (ed) P. A. Koler, M. E. Wrolstad & H. Boumas, Processing
>> of Visible Language Vol II. NY: Plenum.
>> Harris, Roy 1995. Signs of Writing. NY: Routledge.
>> Jesperson, Otto. 1889. The Articulation of Speech Sounds. Marburg.
>> Sampson, Geoffrey. 1985. Writing systems: a Linguistic Introduction.
>> Stanford: Stanford U Press.								P211.s36
>> ------------------------
>> On Oct 11, 2011, at 3:21 PM, Valerie Sutton wrote:
>>> SignWriting List
>>> October 11, 2011
>>> Dear SignWriting List Members, and Joe -
>>> Early in 2011, Joe Martin sent me some files on his research on
>>> SignWriting, to post on the web and on this List.
>>> Thank you, Joe, for sharing your work with us. Your files are now posted
>>> on the web here:
>>> SignWriting in Linguistics
>>> Joe received his Masters Degree in Linguistics at the University of
>>> South Carolina in 2007.
>>> Both the Abstract and the full thesis are now posted on the web for
>>> download. I also placed the Abstract inside the thesis.
>>> Abstract
>>> Writing and Signed Languages
>>> Masters Degree Thesis
>>> Writing and Signed Languages
>>> Joe is a member of this List...
>>> Writing and Signed Languages
>>> by Joe C. Martin
>>> Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
>>> Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
>>> in the Linguistics Program
>>> College of Arts and Sciences
>>> University of South Carolina
>>> 2007
>>> The idea of a written form for signed languages has been controversial,
>>> and this paper presents a series of experiments designed to provide
>>> answers. The findings:
>>> writing a signed language is in fact possible, using SignWriting, but
>>> not using another script.  (experiments 1 and 2)
>>> a script for signed languages must be arranged in the nonlinear fashion
>>> employed by SignWriting and not in the linear manner of scripts for
>>> spoken language. (experiment three)
>>> our brains process SignWriting in the same manner they process scripts
>>> for spoken language. (experiments 4 and 5)
>>> Conclusion: reading and writing is the same for both sign and speech,
>>> and SignWriting is just another writing system like any other.
>> ----------
>> Val ;-)
>> Valerie Sutton
>> SignWriting List moderator
>> sutton at
>> Post Messages to the SignWriting List:
>> sw-l at
>> SignWriting List Archives & Home Page
>> Join, Leave or Change How You Receive SW List Messages

More information about the Sw-l mailing list