In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System
B.A., University of Virginia, 1995
Master's Degree Thesis
University of Kansas
Department of Linguistics, 1999
Submitted to the Department of Linguistics and the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Kansas
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This thesis addresses the issues surrounding the Deaf community,
its language, and the writing system proposed for recording its
language. The effects of the writing system on its users are
reviewed. A brief history of written language is presented in
light of further empowering a language community which has no
officially established writing system. This thesis will consider
the Deaf community; a unique cultural group in that it is bound
by a common language, and yet it has not adopted a standardized
writing system. We will examine the characteristics of this community
and its language, and we will describe attempts to create a writing
system. We will present a description of a movement, based in
California, which is dedicated to establishing SignWriting as
the written form of American Sign Language. Success for this
writing system is likely, as evidenced by its use in the deaf
communities of many countries.
I would like to thank Dr. Akira Yamamoto, my advisor, for working
diligently to refine this thesis. I would like to thank Dr. Henderson
and Dr. Watkins for serving on my committee and providing me
with support and insight. I thank the Deaf Action Committee for
SignWriting and all of those involved with SignWriting for inspiring
Part I: Writing
Those who feel they are part of the Deaf community may not share
a common territory. They may be of different faiths. There is
no Deaf cuisine. And, most of those who belong to the Deaf community
were not born into it, but chose it at various ages. So, what
makes this a distinct culture, with the rules and norms accepted
by its members? It is their language: American Sign Language
(ASL). With as much variation as the membership employing it,
this language defines a culture. It is the language of primary
use at an accredited University in the nation's capital. In the
past two decades, the Deaf community has been struggling for
recognition and equal rights as demonstrated by the Deaf President
Now demonstration in 1988 at Gallaudet University and sparking
the nationwide Deaf Pride movement. Deaf schools have fought
for the right to teach in ASL. Deaf people want their culture
and language recognized as having as much importance as American
culture and spoken English. It is, therefore, a significant fact
that American Sign Language has no established writing system,
and one that must change in our highly literate context.
It has been said, in regard to the difference between
a language and a dialect, that a language is a dialect with an
army. This idea implies that, while almost all humans speak (or
sign), recognizing their mode of communication as language confers
prestige, while calling it a dialect suggests that their society
is unimportant. Furthermore, existing in a written form may be
associated with the prestige of a language. "Standard languages
often are WRITTEN languages" (Hock and Joseph 1996: 335).
All cultures recognized as powerful and relevant to modern society
speak and write their languages. Even when literacy rates are
unimpressive, cultures of import in world discourse have access
to documents and literature.
It is certain that some societies are strictly oral, and others
make use of the official written code to record. For example,
countries in which a variety of vastly different "dialects"
of Arabic are spoken, mainly write standard Arabic, no matter
how different it is from their spoken Arabic. The linguistic
situation facing the American Deaf community differs in two ways.
Deaf people have different levels of access to English, the language
in which they are currently writing, but Deaf culture completely
centers around unwritten American Sign Language, so access to
writing it has great implications. We can also establish the
relationship between the level of literacy a culture possesses
and the external perception of that culture. This thesis considers
the language and culture of a small but proud population, and
addresses the positive effects that establishing a standard writing
system for its language would have.
The American Deaf community takes pride in using a unique language
to communicate, storytell, create poetry etc., but most of the
members of this community write in English. If all members of
this culture were sufficiently bilingual and literate in English,
there might be no reason to question their mode of literacy.
Many core members of the Deaf community have limited skills in
English because of the manner in which most deaf people have
been educated in the United States. Whether a deaf child was
placed in school with hearing children or sent to a school for
the deaf, the focus was often on learning to speak English and
lipread; signing was frowned upon. This has been the case since
the International Congress of Educators of the Deaf conference
held in Milan in 1880. It was decided that deaf schools should
focus on oralism...*Footnote 1...and
that Sign should be prohibited in schools (Sacks 1990: 27). This
created an extremely poor educational setting. Without having
access to sound, and without the help of Sign, learning English
through writing and lipreading was not easily accomplished and
was almost never completely successful. (Sacks 1990, Conrad 1979).
*Footnote 1: An educational theory focused
on the goal of teaching a deaf child to speak English without
the use of signs or gestures.
The core of this community is its separate linguistic status.
American Sign Language (ASL) is the heart and soul of this culture.
Without a signed language there would simply be no Deaf community,
so why not write ASL?
In the following pages I will consider this question in detail.
Chapter 1 will discuss what writing is and its history. Chapter
2 will compare various writing systems and will address the influence
they have on the languages they are used for as well as the people
who employ them. Chapter 3 presents the Deaf community and its
culture. Chapter 4 details ASL as a full linguistic entity. Chapter
5 discusses writing ASL in SignWriting and chapter 6 considers
the effects of writing ASL. This thesis asserts that signers
need a writing system which they may uniformly utilize. It establishes
the case for pervasively adopting SignWriting as the system of
choice for the American Deaf community.