SIGNWRITING: A Brief Overview

SignWriting was developed by an American, Valerie Sutton, at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark in 1974. Sutton had already invented a movement writing system called Sutton DanceWriting, first published in 1973. Invited to teach her system to the Royal Danish Ballet in the Fall of 1974, newspaper articles caught the eye of Danish audiologist and signed language reseracher Lars von der Lieth at the University of Copenhagen. Signed languages were just being recognized as real languages around that time, so for the first time Lieth and other researchers needed a way to record the movements of the languages they were studying. Through her work at the University, Sutton adapted her movement writing system to record the movements of signed languages, which she decided to call "SignWriting". The name is now a registered trademark owned by Sutton's nonprofit organization, the Center For Sutton Movement Writing, located in La Jolla, California. For more information about the early history of SignWriting, visit these web pages:

DanceWriting Begins
Precursor to SignWriting

SignWriting Begins In Denmark
The Early Years

SignWriting Begins In USA

Hiring born-Deaf native ASL signers, Sutton proceeded to publish the first newspaper in history written in the movements of signed languages. The SignWriter Newspaper was written by hand with ink pens, published from 1981-1984. Articles were written directly in ASL by the people born into the language. There were even articles in four languages side by side - Danish Sign Language, American Sign Language, Danish and English. An article on the web illustrates the history of this first newspaper written in signs:

SignWriter Newspaper
Native Signers Begin Writing

In 1986, the SignWriter Computer Program, version 1.0 on the Apple //e was released, programmed by Richard Gleaves. At present, SignWriter 4.3 is in MS-DOS, and SignWriter 5.0, which is planned for release in the year 2000, will be for the Macintosh and Windows. For a history of how the SignWriter Computer Program developed and changed over the years, read this article on the web:

SignWriter Software Development
Apple //e to MS-DOS to Java...

Deaf researcher and teacher Lucinda O'Grady Batch formed the Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting, under the auspices of the Center For Sutton Movement Writing, in 1986. The purpose of the DAC is to encourage members of the Deaf Community to contribute to SignWriting's further development. DAC members work on dictionaries, instruction videos, and ASL literature when there is funding.

The DAC, Deaf Action Committee For SignWriting

Literature Written by the DAC:

Children's Stories Written in ASL

Deaf Author's Series Written in ASL

As more and more Deaf people wrote their own native signed languages in SignWriting, the system changed and improved. There was a natural "evolution" of writing styles. Read this history article on the web:

How SignWriting Has Changed
The Evolution of Writing Styles

There are three sections of the system in use today: SignWriting Printing, Handwriting and Shorthand. The Shorthand and Handwriting are used for quick notetaking and daily writing. The notes can then be typed by computer in SignWriting Printing, which is easily read by children and adults. Examples on the web:

SignWriting Printing

SignWriting Handwriting

SignWriting Shorthand

SignWriting has no connection with any other writing system. It does not stem from a linguistic base. Sutton is a movement notator, not a linguist. Therefore, SignWriting is a "movement writing" system, because the movement is written down in a generic form, not based on a prior knowledge of the languages being written, but instead based on how the body looks as it moves. This means that SignWriting can write any signed language in the world, including detailed facial expressions, gesture and mime. Recording facial expressions is one of SignWriting's strong points. To learn SignWriting on the web:

SignWriting Lessons Online

Facial Expressions

Although SignWriting is not linguistically based, it is used by linguists around the world because of its intuitive nature. The visual qualities of the system make it easy to use, and because Deaf people are using it on a daily basis in some countries, it gives linguists a new focus for their studies. For a quick look at different transcription systems side-by-side, refer to this article on the web:

Writing the Same Signs In Different Transcription Systems
Comparing SignWriting, Stokoe Notation, and HamNoSys

Now, as SignWriting turns 25 years old in November, 1999, linguists, researchers, educators and Deaf people in 16 countries are using the system. Nicaragua is an example of how SignWriting has played an important role in Sign Language Research:

SignWriting In Nicaragua

SignWriting In Brazil

SignWriting In Denmark

SignWriting In Germany

SignWriting In Ireland

SignWriting In Italy

SignWriting In Mexico

SignWriting In Norway

SignWriting In Spain

SignWriting In the UK

SignWriting In the USA

Several dissertations are now being written either about SignWriting, or using SignWriting to illustrate signs throughout documents. Two master's degree theses about SignWriting are posted in their entirety on the web:

Literacy In Nicaraguan Sign Language

Writing Signed Languages
In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System

SignWriting's appeal is the visual, intuitive nature of the system. Being tested in the schools to teach Deaf children in several countries with success, the SignWriting Literacy Project began in 1998 to assist schools in experimenting with SignWriting.

The Literacy Project is pioneering a new concept.....that deaf children who use a signed language might benefit from learning to read and write their native language. This may in turn help understanding of other written languages, such as English or other spoken languages. With this experiment in mind, Sutton began the Literacy Project by donating SignWriting books, videos and software to classes of Deaf students. In return, teachers, students and parents provide documented feedback. The results are published on the SignWriting Web Site and in an annual SignWriting Literacy Project Report, distributed to educators.

Participating schools are the Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico; the Algonquin Middle School in Averill Park, New York; the Caldwell Elementary School in Kansas; the Jordan Vocational High School in Georgia; Robarts School for the Deaf in Canada; Texas School for the Deaf, Lower School in Austin, Texas; a private tutor with a class of Deaf students in Canada, and two homeschools in the USA. The Teacher's Forum on the web, posts information about each class. Here is information about the project in Albuquerque:

Albuquerque Public Schools
SignWriting Literacy Project

Teacher's Reports, Albuquerque

Classroom Experiences, Albuquerque

Interviews with Deaf Students, Albuquerque

Samples Of Student's SignWriting, Albuquerque

Silent News Article About The
Albuquerque Literacy Project:

Controversial Approach to Literacy:
SignWriting: Will It Work? Alexandra Han....November 1999....

Sutton's dedication to developing a writing system that is easy to read, fast to write, and practical for daily use is changing society. Slowly, through working with native signers, and continually changing SignWriting publications and software to meet the daily needs of those who use the system, SignWriting is gradually becoming the "written form" for signed languages around the world.

For more information, contact:

The SignWriting Literacy Project
The DAC, Deaf Action Committee For SignWriting
P.O. Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA


SignWriting Web Site:


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