SignWriting List Archive 1
October 1997 - May 1998

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February 20, 1998

SUBJECT: Help In Research

Date: Thu, 19 Feb 1998 14:36:45 -0500
From: Mark Mandel <>
Subject: Help in Research

Charles Butler <> wrote:

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.

SignWriting is not the ONLY system of doing this. There is also HamNoSys and Stokoe notation, and my (ill-distributed) ASCII adaptation of Stokoe notation.

Well, a correction to that. Stokoe notation is more or less phonemic for ASL; it is not phonetic, and therefore not precisely as you describe. Phonetic systems (such as IPA for spoken languages) need some adaptation to be conveniently used for writing specific languages, because they record much detail that is unnecessary for a specific language.

Mark A. Mandel
Senior Linguist

Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200
320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02160, USA :
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