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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University

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Reading, Writing & Typing
One problem with both SN and SSW is that neither can be typed on a standard keyboard. No one has ever developed software for typing SN as a popular script. However SN fonts can be found at http://www.panix.com/~grvsmth/stokoe/, and a way to transcribe SN into ASCII is online at: http://world.std.com/~mam/ASCII-Stokoe.html.

The situation with SSW is entirely different. Software has been developed, and this script is used daily throughout the world to type over a dozen different signed languages. It is typed with the SignWriter Computer Program, an MS-DOS program developed in 1986 and constantly upgraded since. The English-ASL edition, which includes a 3000 word ASL dictionary can be downloaded as free shareware at http://signwriting.org/sw128.html.
For a full description of the existing software, see http://signwriting.org/sw124.html. Much-improved SignWriter 5.0, http://signwriting.org/prog000.html, which runs on both Windows and MAC, is under development. You can read the story of all these developments at http://signwriting.org/prog004.html.

All this technological progress has resulted in SSW becoming much better known, but there is a downside as well. Today, most people become acquainted with the system through the computer generated, printed, version. Assuming that this computer generated printing is all there is to the system, they may attempt to reproduce this by hand, find it too slow and tedious, and conclude that SSW is impractical. This is a misconception. Most scripts, including our own Roman alphabet, provide both a printed version for clarity in reading, and later on a cursive version for ease in writing. Printed SSW, with its filled in shapes and multiple arrows, is designed to be easily learned and read.

There is also not only a handwritten but a shorthand version. This is a very fast way of writing, designed for stenography, with extremely simplified symbols that may take only one or two strokes. In a letter to the SignWriting List, Researcher Dr. Karen van Hoek, formerly of the Salk Institute, describes using this method; "someone in a lab meeting at Salk would say something interesting in ASL, and I would jot it down, maybe with a note, `Can you also say...' and a possible sentence in ASL that I wanted to check out. It was faster than writing signs with English glosses" (2/1/00). This version of SSW can be written at the speed of
actual signing, as with other shorthands. Unlike them, there is no need to rewrite it later in full, as it is fully legible on its own. It can be read by people other than the writer, and even many years later (Charles Butler, personal communication, 2/2/00). This handwritten SSW is not
instantly readable like the printed version, and this makes it a closer equivalent to the type of scripts we are used to, having to be learned in the usual way by those knowing the language. Seeing the printed version first is intended to make this easier.

There is no shorthand or cursive SN. It was designed to show the parameters of individual signs, and this it did very well. It was not designed as a popular script, however, and it is difficult or impossible to read. The problem is that the parameters that it presents in linear order don't really occur in that order. There is some question whether it is even possible for our eyes to read this way. Karen van Hoek, now at the University of Michigan, encountered this while working with the similar notation SignFont. She compares it to writing all the letters in alphabetic order, with little numbered subscripts to tell the order to pronounce them. "Obviously this is unreadable," she says," and I think SignFont and Stokoe Notation are unreadable for the same reason" (personal communication 3/12/99).

SSW seems to require the eyes to move in all directions, even backwards at times; yet this may not matter, since skilled readers see not words but whole phrases at once. It seems likely that familiar SSW characters would be read like Chinese logographs yet new ones could be easily "sounded out" by their features. Studies have shown that individual logographs of Chinese can be read by the right brain only, without using the language centers in the left brain (Zaidel & Peters), and this raises questions as to which part of the brain is used in reading SSW pictographs. When little Suzie reads the word "CAT," does she say the sound to herself (phonological recoding) or does she just memorize the series of symbols (pattern recognition)? There is no way to tell, since every script, even Chinese, links the symbols with sound. SSW and SN, for the first time ever, give researchers a way to separate these two methods and discover how we really read. All this cries out to be investigated.


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Describing Language