SignWriting List Archive 1
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January 10, 1998

SUBJECT: SignWriting Is NOT A Language, It Is A Tool

Date: Sat, 10 Jan 1998 08:36:42 -0600 (CST)
From: Rebecca Larche Moreton <>
Subject: SignWriting is NOT a language, it is a tool.

SignWriting is a way of writing a language. It can be looked on as an "alphabet" for signed languages. This alphabet is being used today to write ASL and other signed languages (see the DACS web-page for details) and it will undoubtedly be used in the future to write many more of the world's signed languges. The invention and development of SignWriting, the first practical system for representing signed languages as they are actually produced by their users, is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable to the development of the great writing systems that already exist for spoken languages.

Among the alphabets used in writing the world's spoken languages: are Roman, Cyrillic, Arabic, Greek, and numerous others. A given alphabet can be adapted to write more than one language. For example, look at English, French, Norwegian, Turkish, Tagalog, and Choctaw: different languages, but all commonly written using the Roman alphabet. In the same way, ASL, British Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, Israeli Sign Language, Russian Sign Language, and so on, are different languages. But all could be written using SignWriting, with some adaptations. How is this possible, if the signed languages differ from each other?

The explanation is straightforward: Existing alphabets represent the words and sentences of a spoken language by representing the combinations of sounds that make up the words and putting them in the order they are spoken. SignWriting represents the words and sentences of ASL by representing the combinations of gestures that make up the utterances of the language. The uniqueness of the SignWriting system is that it shows simultaneous actions and places actions in space, thus capturing the three-dimensional structure of ASL. SignWriting is as important a breakthrough for the writing of signed languages as the development of alphabets was for the writing of spoken languages.

One might ask: If I am a user of ASL and I learn to write it using SignWriting, then will I automatically be able to read and understand another signed language which is written using the SignWriting notation?

Answer: No, you will still have to learn the other signed language, since it will be a different language, just written in SignWriting symbols. Just as a speaker of French must actually go through the process of learning Turkish before she can read and understand that language, you will have to learn Chinese Sign Language or Australian Sign Language and how it is represented in SignWriting, before you can read and understand it. (But of course you will not have to learn Chinese or Australian, since these are not signed languages, in the same way that one does not have to know English in order to learn ASL, they are two different languages.)

What SignWriting can do, however, is to help you when you want to learn to sign a new language: SignWriting gives you a good idea of what the words and sentences of a "foreign" sign language will look like when the language is actually being used. You will still need to see someone actually using the foreign language in order to do it exactly like the native signer does, but SignWriting will open a door for the learning of signed languages, both by Deaf and by Hearing users.

What an exiting invention!

Rebecca Larche Moreton
301 South Ninth Street
Oxford, MS 38655