Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary
to be released soon
The book was prepared by a psychology professor and a psychologist
and will be available also in CD ROM format and, soon on the
Internet. It contains 3,500 signs to help deaf people to communicate
among themselves as well as with the culture at large.
A pioneer research will facilitate the lives of thousands of
deaf people and their hearing relatives, friends and co-workers,
who will finally be able to consult a Brazilian Sign Language
Dictionary. It contains 3,500 signs and will be available in
book format, as a CD ROM and eventually on the Internet. The
book is organized by Dr. Fernando Capovilla, a Psychology professor
who teaches Experimental Cognitive Neuropsycholinguistics at
the University of São Paulo, and by his research associate,
the psychologist Walkíria Raphael. The University of São
Paulo Post interviewed Dr. Capovilla, who talked about the dictionary,
its importance, and the benefits that its release will bring
to the Brazilian deaf community.
The University of São Paulo Post: Tell us about
the dictionary: its characteristics, format, content and the
way it was accomplished.
Fernando Capovilla: The book is titled Brazilian Sign
Language Dictionary: Illustration and SignWriting of 3500 signs
used by the Deaf in São Paulo. It is the product of a
six-year research effort. It contains 12,000 illustrations by
Silvana Marques, which are distributed in about 1 thousand pages.
Each sign is illustrated in sequential stages with arrows added,
so as to represent precisely the movement involved. Each sign
is also written in the direct visual writing system SignWriting,
which was created by Valerie Sutton in California in the 70's
and is nowadays used around the world for writing signs both
in a practical way (by the deaf child) and in a precise way (by
The University of São Paulo Post: What are the
objectives of the dictionary?
Fernando Capovilla: The dictionary will produce a significant
increase of deaf children's sign vocabulary, reduce the mind
puzzling variation in signs that distorts daily teaching and
communication by the deaf, and spread the awareness and use of
SignWriting as a means of writing down the signs of the deaf
language in a visual, direct way, without the mediation of glosses.
Each of the 3500 signs is written down in SignWriting, and depicted
in a life-like illustration. In addition to that, a systematic
morphological description is provided, so as to permit its precise
performance, and allow for studies in the comparative linguistics
The University of São Paulo Post: Tell us more
about the readership who will benefit from the dictionary.
Fernando Capovilla: Deaf people in general, their friends
and relatives and co-workers, deaf teachers and their hearing
colleagues, psychologists who practice with deaf clients, linguists
who study Brazilian Sign Language, psycholinguists who study
language development in deaf children, neuropsychologists who
study brain lesions in deaf aphasics and loss of sign language,
speech-language pathologists, anthropologists, novelists, screenwriters
and writers interested in documenting deaf folklore and writing
down deaf tales that are transmitted from generation to generation
in deaf communities.
The University of São Paulo Post: In addition
to the printed version as a book, will there be another version?
Fernando Capovilla: Yes. There will be a CD ROM version
with graphic animation of signs. In this version the signs will
be indexed on the basis of sign morphology (hand articulation,
palm orientation with respect to signing planes, place of articulation
with respect to body and signing space, type and direction of
movement involved, and associated facial expression). This morphological
indexing will allow a deaf reader to locate the desired sign
without the need for intermediation of glosses in Portuguese.
On the other hand, using the Portuguese glosses arranged alphabetically,
as well as the corresponding drawings, a hearing reader who is
not familiar with sign language may locate the corresponding
sign for a given meaning.
The University of São Paulo Post: Is there a
universal language for deaf people?
Fernando Capovilla: Sign languages are not universal,
but vary from country to country, and region to region, even
more so than spoken languages do, as one might expect from a
language that remained in the so called "oral tradition"
(i.e., before the advent of its consolidation in writing). Yet,
the direct visual writing system devised by Sutton (i.e., SignWriting)
is universal, insofar as it represents the objective visual properties
of the morphology (or "choreography" in the dance of
signs in space) of signs, in whatever sign language one can apply
it to. SignWriting allows for the precise representation of the
signs of a given sign language (e.g., American Sign Language
or Brazilian Sign Language). However, the readers may understand
a text written in SignWriting only if they are familiar with
the signs that comprise the specific sign language that SignWriting
is being used to represent.
The University of São Paulo Post: Tell us about
the process of creating such a kind of dictionary.
Fernando Capovilla: Using the resources accruing from
the sales of our previous publications on solutions for children
with special needs, we managed to hire deaf informants and to
gather an enthusiastic team of undergraduate and graduate research
assistants in psychology, computer sciences, arts, linguistics
and speech-language pathology. Over the last year, we have also
had the competent collaboration of deaf informants from organizations
such as the National Federation for the Education and Integration
of the Deaf (FENEIS-SP). We already have all signs illustrated,
defined, and described. They are now been systematically revised
by a number of deaf task groups working under the National Coordinator
of Brazilian Sign Language Courses in cooperation with our laboratory
at the University of São Paulo. The work involved is gigantic.
We are also performing the digitalization, graphic animation
and indexation of the 3500 signs in order to conclude the computerized
system in CD ROM. At the University of São Paulo we have
concluded a multimedia communication system based on the animated
signs, and we are working on its SignWriting version right now.
The University of São Paulo Post: What are the
benefits that this system will bring for the deaf?
Fernando Capovilla: The end product of all this research
effort will be a highly effective means of consultation, communication,
reading and writing for the deaf. As a means of communication
devised for the deaf with severe motor impairements, the system
allows communication between deaf and hearing people, both face
to face and via local networks. Sign selection may be performed
directly via mouse or touch sensitive screen, or indirectly via
automatic scanning and devices sensitive to air-puff, discrete
movements, groan, eye-blink, or eye-gaze. Sign selection results
in messages that may be spoken with digitized speect output (with
voice appropriate to the deaf's gender and age), printed in 1)
written Portuguese, 2) Brazilian Sign Language illustrated signs,
and 3) SignWriting. In the future, we also plan to have the system
running on the Internet, so as to introduce Brazilian and American
deaf people to Brazilian and American friends in both Portuguese
and English. At the University of São Paulo we are working
on a cyphering system now that is going to translate messages
back and forth from Brazilian to American Sign Languages, from
English to Portuguese, and from signed to written-spoken languages
The University of São Paulo Post: Why did you
have the idea of creating such a dictionary and computer system
in the first place? What have been the difficulties involved
in such a work?
Fernando Capovilla: In the last decade we have created
a myriad of multimedia communication systems that have been exceedingly
successful for people with severe motor and speech impairments
(e.g., cerebral palsy, aphasias, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,
muscular dystrophy), as well as for alexic adults and dyslexic
children. The community of educators, practitioners, and researchers
have recognized our accomplishments, but have always asked us
to develop solutions for the deaf tetraplegic and the deaf cerebral-palsied.
At first we thought it would be simple: We just had to replace
pictograms and ideograms with animated signs from the Brazilian
Sign Language. And we were right! What we did not know, however,
was that in this country there is not even one published dictionary
that is sufficiently accurate and comprehensive so as to allow
us to feed our communication system with it. When we realized
that, we started preparing our own first little and modest pilot
dictionary, which was published two years ago. We used it to
program our multimedia system and to make it run in local networks.
And it ran beautifully! Now we are concluding a much, much better
dictionary, hundreds of times more accurate and comprehensive,
and we are almost ready to use its thousands of animated signs,
illustrations, and SignWriting scripts to feed into our megasystem
which is going to be at the same time a sign dictionary, a sign
searching system, and a sign communication system. The end product
will be solid, comprehensive, precise and informative for the
purpose of academic research in linguistics and psychology. It
will also be attractive and instigating for the purpose of learning
both Brazilian Sign Language and its orthography in SignWriting.