Glyphs, graphemes or symbols? ISWA terminology

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway erhoffma at OBERLIN.EDU
Wed Jun 19 14:39:13 UTC 2013

In many disciplines, symbol refers to something which bears meaning by
means of social convention. So symbol is a blanket term that would apply to
all aspects of SW, and in that respect may be too broad for what you're
looking to do.

On Wed, Jun 19, 2013 at 7:46 AM, maria galea <signwriting.maria at>wrote:

> Yes - this is the problem the terms are used differently in different
> areas - Maybe Steve Slevinski could tell us what they use in the area of
> unicode...
> As for the field of writing systems/linguistics, I've just found this in
> Coulmas Enclyclopedia. there is no definition of 'symbol' so I am ruling
> that term out. The term glyph is defined as:
> "A term derived by contraction from HIEROGLYPH. It has sometimes been used
> in the description of writing sytems whose units were not well understood.
> For example, in Maya epigraphy, where teh phonetic component of the writing
> system has long been in doubt, it is used as a collective designation to
> indicate a logogram, a phonetic sign or a compound sign" (Coulmas, 1996, p.
> 168).
> The term 'grapheme' is provided as follows:
> "Coined on analogy with 'phoneme'this term deignates the unit of analysis
> in the study of written langauge understood as an abstract entity (...)
> Every analysis of a writing sytem tart out with compiling a complete list
> of the graphemes of that system on the basis of a set of data that comprise
> all of its GRAPHS, that is visually distinct formal elements. (...)"
> (Coulmas, 1996, p. 174)
> *SO* on the basis of this (and considering all the work i've done so
> far)... I will be calling the symbols of the ISWA 'glyphs' and the symbols
> used by a specific language (in this case maltese sign language)
> as..'graphemes' -
> Claudia -  it is a good justification for using the term 'glyph' - I have
> not consulted with the Deaf in malta about this choice of term. Might be a
> good idea to check this..
> Thank you Ingvild and Claudia!
> maria
> On 19 June 2013 13:30, Ingvild Roald <iroald at> wrote:
>> I think this has been discussed before - several years ago.
>> My thoughts:
>> Graphemes and morphemes belong to the same 'category': that of small
>> units carrying meaning.
>> Glyphs are the writable results of merging one or more graphemes, so that
>> the glyph for a certain handshape will also reveal a certain rotation
>> (placement of long axis of hand) and a certain fill (rotation along this
>> long axix).
>> The symbol for the back of the hand is black (fill), for the palm it is
>> white (no fill), and so on.
>> But maybe there are conventions for use of these words in connection with
>> Unicode, which would of course be more important than my private houghts ...
>> Ingvild
>> ------------------------------
>> Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2013 13:09:11 +0200
>> From: signwriting.maria at GMAIL.COM
>> Subject: Glyphs, graphemes or symbols? ISWA terminology
>> Dear all,
>> I'm trying to figure out which term to stick to when referring to the
>> symbols of ISWA - any preferences and if so, why?
>> Thank you very much!
>> maria

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Oberlin College
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