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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


STRUCTURE continued...

Figure 14a:







The example shown in Figure 14, repeated here in Figure 14a, is neither English nor ASL. It is Pidgin Sign, which is only arguably a language at all. To be language there has to be more than words, there must also be a particular grammar. A grammar, in this special linguistic sense, is a specific set of rules that tell how to put words together in one particular language. In English, the grammar requires putting in function words that tell the grammatical relationships, and word endings. It requires that every sentence has both a subject, and a verb that shows tense. On the other hand, the grammars of both ASL and Japanese allow one to omit both subject and tense. Every language has its own unique set of rules.

Figure 14 doesn't indicate the grammar of any language, it is just a string of words. Two strings, in fact; one taken from English and written in the Roman Alphabet, and the other taken from ASL and written in both SN and SSW. Without knowing the grammar though, there is no way to tell exactly what these words mean. There are any number of ways to make the English word-string into a proper sentence, and the DASL gives us two of them: "I have just been talking with him," or "I had already talked with him." Each of these two ways draws from the grammar of English and adds a tense ending (-ed, -ing), a subject (I), and several function words. The result is a correct, understandable English sentence.

English tends to show its grammar by adding words like this, but ASL has other methods, and tends to use fewer words. For example, it is not necessary to sign "with him" after this ASL verb "talk." This is an "incorporating verb," one which includes both the subject (I) and the object (him). The hands move between the two people talking, clearly showing that the talking is "with" someone, and even telling exactly where that someone is. Rather than meaning "talk" as the gloss suggests, it actually means something more like "(I) conversed with (the specific person in that location)." So this one sign conveys the same meaning as a whole sentence in English. Figure 15 shows the correct sentence in ASL, written in SSW.

Figure 15

It can't be written in SN for a couple of reasons. First, we have seen how SN is unable to handle the pronoun system of ASL, and for the same reasons we can't use it to write this type of verb. In the example in Figure 14, the movement arrow in the SN character shows movement towards the person talked to. This would not mean "talk with him" at all, it would mean "talk with you." Secondly, the first sign means "at some time in the past." The DASL seems to interpret it as meaning only a short time ago, since it gives the translations "just," and "already." However, these are adverbs, and ASL usually expresses adverbs through the NMGS that were left out of SN. This idea of "just a short time ago" is usually shown by a certain mouth expression involving the lip corners. Combined with a time adverb like this it can mean the same as the English "just _____ed" (Liddell 76). This scrunched up mouth is indicated by the crooked line within the face circle of the first SSW character in Figure 15.

The point is that nearly all the word endings, grammatical function words, and other things that change mere word-lists into meaningful statements, signed languages convey through NMGSs (and a knowledge of the language's specific grammar). Scripts that don't take this into account from the very beginning are not capable of writing signed languages. This includes SN, but not SSW.

Figure 16

She said, "I did have a long, boring conversation with someone recently."

The NMGSs include facial expressions involving the brows, and the mouth, and also head nods, eyegaze, and body shifts. Some of them are:

1. Reported speech: By a slight shift of the shoulders, the signer takes on the role of a second party, equivalent to the English "she said" (Liddell 8). This slight shift, since it means someone else is talking, can change all the pronominal and other referents in all the rest of the statement. In our example, the subject of the verb--the person who is talking--changes from "I" to some other person, even though the sign doesn't change (Bahan 150). In Figure 16, the tilted bar in the first character is a "shoulder line," tilted to show this shift in reference.

2. Affirmation: Nodding the head up and down adds the meaning of affirming what is said. Mandatory in many constructions, it can also add affirmation like the English "do" (Liddell 47). Here, it is shown by the arrows above the head circle.

3. Careless manner of performance: The mouth opens in a specific formation to indicate an action is performed carelessly, with little attention (Liddell 77). Since it is used here with the verb "talk," I translate this as "boring." The little circle in the face shows this adverb. Signing
the verb with a relaxed type of movement can convey the same idea, and that is the meaning of the hollow wiggly symbol under the character.

4. Unspecified object: A wandering upward eyegaze indicates an unspecified "someone" or "something" (Bahan 174). The arrows inside the head circle indicate this.

Figure 16 puts all these into one ASL sentence, a little contrived perhaps, but grammatically correct. Most of its meaning depends on an understanding of the grammar of the language and the non-manual signals. Even though it takes an extremely large number of English words to translate it correctly, it still uses only the SAME TWO SIGNS as the earlier simple sentence, and would still be given the SAME GLOSS. It is widely admitted that the use of English glosses is inadequate to express sign language, and simply changing the glosses to ASL is little
improvement. It seems desirable also that a sentence of two signs should be written as two signs, but without losing any of the meaning of those two signs. The processes discussed here are an integral and necessary part of ASL, and other signed languages are similar. To be unable to show them is to be unable to write the language. To date, SSW is the only script that even approaches being able to do this.


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Describing Language