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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


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Signs, of course, just like spoken words, occur in a time sequence and so are arranged in linear order, and all scripts write them that way. This linearity of speech and writing is more of the "dogma of scientific linguistics" that Armstrong mentions; in this regard both SN and SSW follow convention. However, both SN and SSW use several different types of symbols, corresponding to different parameters, so that any complete character must contain one of each type. The way these two scripts arrange the component parts of their characters is fundamentally different.

Note B: "For Ferdinand de Saussure, this property of linearity constitutes the most crucial characteristic (after its essential arbitrariness) of the (vocal) signifier" (Groves, 366). This should not be construed to mean linear only. Simultaneity is least obvious in the auditory reception of speech, yet even this minimally involves simultaneous perception of the multiple formants that define specific vowels. These of course are created by multiple articulators acting simultaneously. These articulatory movements in both speech and sign follow each other linearly. Overemphasizing either aspect obscures another Saussurean axiom, that language consists of syntagm and paradigm. Without the latter there could be only an endless repetition of identical segments. All language must have both even though speech and sign arguably differ in the relative importance given to each.

SN clings to the traditional idea of the "linear ordering of the speech signal." It arranges its symbols according to a strict formula: the Location symbol is first, followed by the Hand Shape, and lastly the Movement. Movement symbols stacked vertically signify simultaneous
movement, while movement symbols following each other horizontally indicate sequential actions. (Even though Stokoe claimed that all the parts of an ASL sign happened at once, his notation clearly shows otherwise. The two dots in "Money" (Figure 12a) stand for repetitions of the same movement.)

This ordering scheme was chosen for economy; like the decimal numbering system, it allows the same symbol to do different tasks. A "B-hand" can stand for a Location (initial position) or for a Hand Shape (center position) depending on its position in the formula. On the other hand, this imposes an artificial relationship on the symbols, that of linear ordering. As Stokoe says, "This order corresponds to no sequence in sign phenomena; it is arbitrary" (Stokoe 1960, 40). However arbitrary, it arises from the traditional view of language as linear segments. Once freed from this artificial constraint, it seems curious to draw two items in the wrong place, and then invent a new symbol to tell how they were arranged to begin with.

Figure 12a
SN Symbol Ordering

SSW organizes these elements spatially and simultaneously, as they actually occur. The SSW character is not a description of the sign, but an actual map showing the positions of the articulators. The center of the map, the reference point, is the center of the signing space. Unselected articulators, those not involved in making the sign, can be left out if desired, but all selected articulators are shown, together with the spatial relationships amongst them. This is why there is no need for a separate Location symbol. All the parameters, except Movement, can be treated as spatial relationships among the various articulators. The parameter called Location is the relationship of the Hand Shape to the body, the head and the other articulators. Hand Shape itself is no more than the location of (i.e. the relationship among) the fingers, thumb and palm. The parameter of Facial Expression consists of the relationships amongst the brows, lips and other parts of the face. Just like describing a hike through the mountains, there is no question that a map is the best way to represent relationships in space. If the articulators of speech weren't hidden away where we can't see them, it is likely we would use this method for speech too, instead of relying on the secondary information provided by sound waves.

Figure 12b
SSW Symbol Ordering


A map showing a "flat-O" Hand Shape centered above an open Left palm. The light colored palm is visible in both.


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Describing Language