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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


STRUCTURE continued...

Four Dimensions
Discussions of writing signed languages often express puzzlement at how to represent a three dimensional language on a two dimensional surface. This doesn't seem such a problem in view of the fact that nearly every photograph does so successfully. A better question would be how to add the fourth dimension of time on a 2D surface. Remember that language segments are segments over time during which changes (movements) occur. If there is no movement there is no language. Referring back to Figure 2, we see four speech segments shown both schematically and alphabetically. The pictures show an instant in time, not an entire sequence of movement. The schematic of the first picture means nothing until compared with the second picture, understood to happen later in time, when we can see that the tongue has moved down, unblocking the air flow and thus producing a /k/ sound. The symbol <k> doesn't stand for just the blocked airflow shown in the picture, it stands for the entire sequence of movements involved in the block and release.

Figure 2

Each alphabetic letter then, stands for a certain sequence of movement in 3D space. Each schematic shows the beginning or end of that sequence, so that taken together they indicate the sequence of movement. A third alternative would be to draw arrows with the picture; as do both SN and SSW. All three of these methods successfully represent three-dimensional language on a two dimensional surface, and we have seen how linear ordering adds the fourth dimension.

Another issue is that non-spoken languages often use two sets of articulators at once, as in signing different things with each hand. How to represent this in the linear manner we are accustomed to has been called an insurmountable problem, necessitating awkward multiple lines of script (Miller 199). For SN this may be true, but SSW solves the problem by using a "line" that sees not just one hand but the entire body, thus viewing all the articulators simultaneously.


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Describing Language