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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University

STRUCTURE continued...

At its most basic, language consists of a grammar as well as a vocabulary. Writing entire sentences raises a whole forest of new problems that don't appear with just single signs, and one of the biggest of these is how to write inflections, or word endings. Instead of adding segments to the end of words as spoken languages usually do, signed languages tend to change the words themselves, along the order of "swim-swam-swum." Alphabetic writing is possible because there are only a limited number of syllables to go in that middle position, from about eighty down to as few as thirteen in Hawaiian (Armstrong 78). However, "there is no limit on the number of elementary gestures that can be performed, as there is a limit on the number of ways that the vocal tract can be configured--one can point anywhere--so, signed languages--have potentially infinite resources"(108). This is why scripts for signed languages have to be featural. All those thousands of syllables combine only a limited number of features, so a featural script needn't have thousands of "letters." Figure 13 shows three entries from the DAC dictionary listing different inflections on an ASL verb. The parameter that varies is movement, so below them I have written what seem to be similar motions from the DASL. Both scripts seem capable of showing this level of detail. SSW uses combinations of the basic movement arrows, with other symbols held in reserve for such details as rate, tension and so on, while SN manages--barely--with its set of movement symbols.

Figure 13: Verb Inflections








pull repeatedly

While SN seems capable of handling at least some aspects of grammar, I have found no published attempts to do so. Figure 14 shows a "sentence"--a string of words--taken from DASL, along with its SSW counterpart. One is immediately struck by the analytical nature of SN in contrast with the holistic visual nature of SSW. It is barely noticeable that the location symbols of SN are mildly iconic, showing the side of the face, lower face, and neutral signing space respectively (the last of which SSW shows by an absence of symbols). The vertical bar at the end of the lower SSW sentence marks a pause, and functions the same as an English period. SSW, unlike SN, has a complete system of punctuation.

Figure 14:



The second and fourth SSW characters of Figure 14 demonstrate grammatical agreement, perhaps the biggest problem for writing signed language. Speech uses matching segments "she ate her food" but signed languages use imaginary points in space! It's difficult to see how this could be written in SN, but the second and fourth SSW characters of Figure 14 demonstrate agreement. The movement arrows in both these signs are oriented towards an imaginary point in space that is occupied by the "him" that is being talked about. For the sentence to make any sense they all have to point to the same place. These two signs are pronouns, and if the arrows pointed straight forward it would mean they were pointing at "you" instead of "him". By rotating the symbols SSW can indicate any number of persons. Note that it is SSW's handling of the location parameter that makes this possible. The human eye sees these arrows as pointing to the same spot, with the same limitations on perception applying to SSW as apply to actual signing.

There are also limitations on short term memory that seem to require all languages to express ideas at about the same rate. Although it takes longer to move the articulators in Signing, expressing a given amount of information takes the same amount of time as it takes in speech (Klima & Bellugi 194). Moving the larger articulators in Signing takes longer, but the near-infinite number of possible phonemes allows use of all its various channels at once. Speech has a limited number of phonemes, but the movements of the articulators are very small and fast, making for long strings of contrasting segments. We can write English using strings of ones and zeros with no simultaneous contrasts at all, and for a computer this is practical, but a popular script should reflect whatever simultaneity is present, and this differs between signing and speech.


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Describing Language