AW: Genesis of SignWriting

Stefan Woehrmann stefanwoehrmann at GEBAERDENSCHRIFT.DE
Wed Nov 6 17:38:12 UTC 2013

Hi Honza, Valerie and everybody...

when I did this kind of research a decade ago I found some very interesting
documents that may lead to the assumption that SignWriting is a notation
system that existed already long time ago...   smile



All best 






Von: SignWriting List: Read and Write Sign Languages
[mailto:SW-L at LISTSERV.VALENCIACOLLEGE.EDU] Im Auftrag von Valerie Sutton
Gesendet: Mittwoch, 6. November 2013 17:54
Betreff: Re: Genesis of SignWriting


SignWriting List

November 6, 2013


Hello Honza and everyone -

Thank you for starting this interesting thread, about the “genesis” or the
background and history not only to SignWriting, but to writing sign
languages throughout history. There is a lot to discuss.


Regarding Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian

I first heard about Bébian’s system in September 2007, when my friend Shane
Gilchrist (hi Shane!) suggested that I purchase a book called “I See a
Voice” by Jonathan Rée. I ordered it from and then enjoyed
skimming the chapters related to writing sign languages, from page 293-324.
It was there that I first learned about Bébian, but I was immediately
attracted to his system and his feelings about writing sign languages and
felt a “connection” (you know what I mean - almost a spiritual feeling that
we were on the same plane, so to speak). And there are many other
interesting stories and information in the book which makes me think I
should read the book more carefully - I confess I have only skimmed the


But yes, Honza, I see the connection, but no, I did not know about Bébian at
the time of my first writing Danish Sign Language and a South Pacific Sign
Language back in Denmark in 1974, 1975 and 1976.


I was a little different than the other developers of writing systems, in
that I did not come from a knowledge of any sign language, nor did I have a
desire to learn linguistics. I loved languages in general, but that is not a
linguistic interest. I was already writing the dances of the Bournonville
tradition at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen with my invention in 1974, and
when I started writing the movement of both hearing people and Danish Sign
Language from a video at the University of Copenhagen starting in 1974, I
was sharing my time between writing dance at the Royal theater and writing
sign language movement and hearing-person’s gestures at the University - I
saw myself as a movement notator and not a sign language writer at the
but overtime, as I wrote more of Danish Sign Language on the video, I
became aware it was a real language
I self-published two booklets on writing
sign languages - one on writing Danish Sign Language, and the other on
writing signs from a South Pacific Island with Rolf Kuschel. These two
booklets are mentioned on this web page, and I could scan them and post them
on the web if you wish
would you like to see these old historic documents?




My influence was definitely Friedrich Albert Zorn ( ), and Walt Disney’s
animation that places movement in drawings frame by frame by frame from left
to right on a five-lined staff that can fit under music
 That was my
starting point


Then I started writing sign language in stick figures at the University go
 Later I learned about Dr.Stokoe and his research


I think starting visual with stick figures, with no linguistic judgements,
had great value, and I still believe in the visual, but it is the writers we
work with, like yourself, Honza, and in my case, the Deaf Action Committee,
that had the greatest influence on our writing expressively, in vertical
columns, without full stick figures
the way we write today
and the internet
had a big influence
where I and others meet people like yourself - as we
write we influence each other...


I bet there were many other writing systems for sign languages before and
after Bébian, that we have not heard of, because everyone needs a way to
write signs
 Adam tells me that most signers have developed their own way of
writing their language from time to time
Adam developed his own system too,
before starting to work with SignWriting, and I have also met other Deaf
signers who have done the same - Bernard Bragg is one -


If Bébian had done his work during the age of the internet, we might be
writing his system worldwide now - smile -


Val ;-)




On Nov 6, 2013, at 7:18 AM, Honza <honza at RUCE.CZ> wrote:

Hello Valerie,


recently I researched history if writing sign languages and I realized that
the very first writing system developed by Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian
(French) is in some way similar to SignWriting.

Did you know about Bebian's writing system by the time you developed
SignWriting on the basis of DanceWriting and were you inspired by his system
or not?
It is known that Stokoe created his notation system on the basis of

It is very interesting fact.


It interests me because I teach about writing sign languages at University,
but I haven't found enought detail about this.


Thank you.





Valerie Sutton SignWriting List moderator sutton at 

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Valerie Sutton
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