A Linguistic Comparison
Two Notation Systems for Signed Languages:
Stokoe Notation & Sutton SignWriting

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


SCRIPTS continued...

Linguist Geoffrey Samson coined the term "featural" for this type of script. Although no script known to him was based entirely on this principle, he cites Pitman shorthand and the Korean alphabet-Hangul-as having featural elements (Sampson 40). He points out that Hangul "has been described as perhaps the most scientific system of writing in general use in any country" (Reischauer 1960, p. 435), or more simply as 'the world's best alphabet (Vos 1964, p. 31)- (Sampson 121).

Nearly all scripts not only represent units, they also "delimit" larger units. SN and SSW, like English, delimit words as groups of symbols separated from other such groups by blank spaces (Henderson 16). In this sense they are logographic. Also, SSW is in a very real sense pictographic, i.e. the symbols are recognizable pictures of the things represented. It differs in a fundamental way from any other pictographic writing though---the SSW pictograph is a picture not of the thing, but of the word that stands for the thing. This is not a possibility with spoken language, since you can't draw pictures of sound waves.

Finally, I want to distinguish between two uses of writing systems, which I call technical and popular. A popular writing system lets us write down what we want to communicate and have others read it back and understand. We are not too concerned if it leaves things out, since we can use our knowledge of the language to fill in the gaps. For linguistic researchers this isn't good enough. They want a technical notation that shows more detail, and that reflects the internal structure of the language. Also, since linguists work with languages they don't know themselves, they want a system that will allow them to read what is written and reproduce it even when they don't know the language they are reading. To expect any one notation to meet all these conflicting sets of requirements is completely unrealistic. In this paper I will focus on SN and SSW as popular scripts rather than as specialized tools for research.

SSW, as noted, was originally designed for research, and is still being used for this in many countries. In a slightly different form it is also being used as an ordinary writing system, in publications and ordinary correspondence (Sutton 1997b, 3), so it is both a popular and technical script.

SN has come under fire for not being technical enough. Researcher Ronnie Wilbur wrote in 1987, "Stokoe Notation is still used today as a convenient shorthand for writing signs, although linguists cannot use it for many purposes because it does not provide symbols for many phonetic details, such as uneven rate of signing, tenseness or laxness, sharp or soft manner of movement, or facial expression and other non-manual components that are crucial to the actual formation of a sign" (Wilbur 20).

However SN was not really intended as a technical system in the first place. William Stokoe himself says in the Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, (hereafter the DASL), that "For the reader who knows American Sign Language, the symbolic notation will suffice. However, for those who use the dictionary as an aid to learning the sign language the symbols alone may not be enough, and therefore he includes text explanations" (Stokoe et al xxv). Clearly then SN was not designed as a technical script. Nor was it a popular script, as it recorded only isolated single words. It was created for a particular, specific purpose-to describe ASL linguistically-and for that it worked very well.

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Describing Language