productive/receptive writing question

Valerie Sutton signwriting at MAC.COM
Tue Aug 13 16:21:32 UTC 2013

SignWriting List
August 12, 2013

Hello Erika, and everyone -
Thank you for this interesting discussion. For those who are new to the List and possibly new to SignWriting, you might be interested in a few points about Expressive and Receptive writing…how did this all happen?

Originally, as a hearing person being asked to write Danish Sign Language from a video, I chose to write the video in the Receptive View back in 1974, at the University of Copenhagen. That is almost 40 years ago!

At the time, not having yet worked with Deaf signers, I didn't realize that the Expressive would be better to "express" oneself. At the time, I was also teaching the Royal Danish Ballet how to read and write dance in Sutton DanceWriting (, and we wrote the dances as if we were sitting in the audience and viewing the dancer on stage. On stage, the dancer will face the audience, but the dancer also turns around while dancing and faces the back wall too…so in DanceWriting we wrote all viewpoints as the observer, including the side view of the body facing the side wall, and later we even developed a way to view the dancer from the top view… I personally have only written dance from the observer's point of view…The idea of writing dance movement from the performer's point of view is wonderful, but actually new to me - I know others write that way and that is great … ;-))

So our writing system stems from writing general body movement as an observer, and because of that background, it was automatic for me to write sign language videos receptively, as an observer, in SignWriting in 1974.

It took a decade…from 1974 to 1984…working with Deaf and hearing signers in the US from 1981-1984 - before we chose to switch SignWriting officially to the Expressive view. We now "default" to the Expressive. This happened at the request of Deaf Signwriters Lucinda O'Grady Batch and Meriam Ina Schroeder. In a meeting in 1984, they requested that we write from the Expressive and we found very fast that everyone seemed to love it…(except for some of the older writers like myself who had to re-learn how to write) - all these changes are hard on the older writers, but I have no doubt that the Expressive choice was the right choice. I believe it is one of the major reasons why SignWriting is read so quickly - because writing the way we see our own hands and feel our own face is what is natural to us when reading….

Meanwhile the system is flexible and people can write as they feel is best for them… but I personally transcribe videos in the Expressive now - I only write Expressively -

I think you all would be surprised to see some of the differences between reading Receptive and Expressive - Everything reverses. It is easy perhaps for simple signs, but later, as the writing gets more advanced, certain signs look quite different in the Receptive - and if you tried to read a full document in the Receptive I think you would find it harder to read - at least it is for me -

Here are some simple comparisons….

Val ;-)

Valerie Sutton
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On Aug 12, 2013, at 12:39 PM, Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway <erhoffma at> wrote:

> Hi everyone! I'm going to be giving a paper at our annual anthropology meetings this fall on a panel about how to best represent visual aspects of linguistic phenomena. 
> I want to talk about the shift from receptive to productive writing in SW. I'm going to suggest that there are interesting theoretical and methodological lessons in this shift for scholars who want to transcribe visual aspects of communication, even if they aren't using SW per se (though I also want to make more scholars in my field aware of how useful SW can be for this purpose).
> To that end, I was wondering if list members might be willing to talk with me about their feelings about productive writing with SW. Did you initially write receptively? If so, how did you shift? (or do you still write receptively sometimes?). How do you feel that writing productively affects the way you choose to write (or how you read other people's writing)? 
> I'd love to hear answers to these questions and anything else you think is relevant about this aspect of SW, particularly as it relates to your own ways of using the writing system (for teaching, for research, for translation, for poetry, etc). 
> The conference isn't until November, but I wanted to get started on it now, before the semester kicks in!
> Best,
> Erika
> -- 
> Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway
> Assistant Professor of Anthropology
> Oberlin College


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