SignWriting List Archive 1
October 1997 - May 1998

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February 19, 1998

SUBJECT: Help In Research

Date: Thu, 19 Feb 1998 01:20:08 -0500
From: Charles Butler <>
Organization: Ecumenicon
Subject: Re: Help in Research

Charles Butler replies to Cecilia:

Having been involved with Sign Writing since 1976, I feel that I can answer some of your questions.

> 1) What is the advantage of a writing system for sign language that is
> not one of the "presently accepted transcription systems"?

By "presently accepted transcription systems", I presume what is meant is English gloss or "spoken gloss" , not "sign transcription".

When I am teaching sign language, or when I am learning a new sign, I want a way to write exactly what my hands are doing, not "COW MOON JUMPED OVER", for example, which presumes that I already know COW, where to put MOON and where to move the primary hand for JUMPED OVER but instead, put "Y hand at primary temple, rubbing, turning pronately, secondary hand forming crescent moon, primary hand changing to "double quote" hand, jumping laterally above secondary hand, ending above and to the left of secondary hand with "double quote" hand edge on to the signer." COW JUMPED OVER doesn't do it, nor does a verbal English or any other spoken descriptive language. Sign Writing does, with minimal confusion. There is only one way to write what my hands are doing, and it can be read and copied even if I am not present. If a transcription system can truly do that, without the signer knowing the signed language, the equivalent of a person unfamiliar with English reading a phonetic transcription of KAU ZHUMPT AUVR MUN, as "cow jumped over moon", then the transcription system is complete and universal, not based on a single sign language but on universal hand, body, movement, gesture language.

>2) Why should a language be written at all?
Without a written language, a heritage dies. Without written language we would not have the words and dialect of Shakespeare, Ovid, Lao Tsu, or Gautama Buddha, to name four writers no longer alive, in four different languages, and three different transcription systems. With a transcription system that is truly "cheremic" to correspond to "phonetic", we can trace sign language of elderly speakers in Denmark, Australia, Borneo, Brazil, Japan, Korea, and Mexico, to name unrelated sign languages, and compare them to current usage in a way that GLOSS simply cannot do. With the same kind of "cheremic" study we can compare Cistercian monastery sign language (dating to the 1400's) with conceptions of thought with ASL (1800's) or Nicaraguan (1996) without confusion of spoken language.

I am putting together, for example, a comparison of "royal court" related signs using Danish, Norwegian, Spanish, British, Cistercian, and ASL signed languages for the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation group. There are a number of deaf who are members of this association, and the opportunity for linguistic research comparing sign languages and their histories is a unique resource. Sign language is used in court both to sign to the Deaf present, but also to those who in a noisy, acoustically difficult hall have need to understand the announcements from the stage referring to "medieval" awards which have historical roots both in ASL and in European heraldry. Using the common language of gesture, a combination of ASL and British sign language is used for such diverse signs as "King (the ASL, British, and Danish signs are all different), Queen, Baron, Award of Arms, Knight, Chirurgeon (Medical Worker), and three types of "herald", the speaking herald (sign "preach" with an "H" hand, the signing herald (sign "sign" with an "H" hand), and the scholarly herald (sign "teacher" with an "H" hand). Sign writing enables a large populace to learn the signs through the mails as well as personally.

3) Use of native speakers in transmitting their language. The Danish public school system is a primary case in point. If one needs 30 references, then take the Deaf schools of Denmark, Norway, Great Britain, Brazil, Blue Field school in Nicaragua, Gallaudet College, and as a linguistic system, the Dance Writing of Oberlin Conservatory as 7 different uses, and find teachers in each group to bring the total of 30 different uses. I think with Valerie Sutton's help, one should be able to find 30 different projects that are currently using sign transcription. If as a test group one wishes to use Stokoe notation at Gallaudet and compare it to a living language like Blue Field school in Nicaragua, it would make a fascinating case study, one for "linguistic research" and the other for "living language".

Well, that's my two cents worth. When I teach sign language, I teach transcription as well, so that when I am not present, and a student sees a new sign, they can write it on a flash card, practice it, correct it, compare it between various native Deaf speakers and refine it in their usage. With a writing system that truly records what one's hands are doing, then one can be self correcting and recording, rather than just signing.


Charles R. Butler, III
Sign Writer and ASL Signer