Which system is best?
Considering various systems
Why one type of writing system is better suited to a language
than another can be explained by that language's sound system,
although in some cases, the sound system had little to do with
what kind of writing system a language community adopted. In
1947, Kenneth Pike of the Summer Institute of Linguistics suggested:
"A practical orthography should
be phonemic. There should be a one-to-one correspondence between
each phoneme and the symbolization of that phoneme. Some orthographies
are based on the syllable and have a one-to-one correspondence
between each syllable and the symbol representing it" (Pike
To exemplify the differences in languages which render a syllabary
more effective, we might compare languages like English and Polish
with Japanese. The number of possible consonant clusters in the
first two languages does not lend itself to being written syllabically.
English consists of over 800 spoken syllables (DeFrancis 1989:55)
while Japanese is comprised of only around 100 spoken syllables
(DeFrancis 1989:68). The Japanese language can be almost completely
described with a syllabary of less than fifty symbols which combine
to represent the language without difficulty.
Why and how has ideographic writing in China and Japan remained
instead of developing parallel to the West and Middle East, into
an alphabetic writing system? The answer may be due to linguistic
characteristics of Chinese, the artistic value of the writing,
and ease of mental processing. The most salient feature of Chinese,
reflected in the morphosyllabic quality of its writing system,
is its lack of inflection. In Japanese, where there is a higher
degree of inflection, a syllabary was developed and adopted to
combine with the Chinese characters for better representation
of the language. Several centuries after Japanese borrowed Chinese
writing symbols, they developed a syllabary to better reflect
the Japanese language. The fact that Japanese kept Chinese characters
as opposed to completely switching to a syllabic writing system
lends great credence to the value of ideographic writing. Even
with the advent of a syllabary, and, in fact, two syllabaries,
Japanese continued to make use of Chinese characters.
"The phonetic representation systems
of Japanese call for a linear approach that slows down the reading
process and correspondingly delays understanding of the content,
whereas the globality of the logogram means that it can be immediately
recognized and understood once it has been memorized" (Noda
The Effects of Writing
The importance of writing can be more specifically explored so
that the advantages for the Deaf community of having a writing
system will be evident. In general, literate people have a sense
that writing is useful even necessary. Writing has influenced
art, culture, societal development, philosophical thought, law,
historical movements and certainly, everyday activities. Furthermore,
there is evidence that writing has an effect on the brain and
language processing (Ojemann 1983, Hatta 1977, 1981, Sasanuma
1980). This section will discuss the importance of writing for
a community and an individual so that a clear case can be made
for the need of a conventional American Sign Language (ASL) writing
The power of writing is its potency as a memory aid, because
much of its value comes from advantages which writing affords
human thinking. "Since the capacity of the human memory
is limited, it became necessary to find a new and unified system
of reference enabling oral information to be preserved and recovered
later on in spoken form" (Andre-Salvini 1995:11). Those
who could write down their ideas, reflecting on the written thoughts
and manipulate them in a tangible way held a great deal of potential
power in a society. Henri-Jean Martin (1995: 27) observes: "The
written word has always been closely associated with power."
One way it has done this, as the same author points out, is through
the law. With the spread of writing came the dissolution of customs
and oral traditions dictating the "laws" of the land.
Writing literally "subjected society to the dominance of
the law," because once laws were written changes in the
community could not as easily affect the previously sufficient
law-like customs (Martin 1995:27). For those who had writing
at their disposal, the world became a more permanent and controllable
What writing has done and continues to do to language is also
astonishing. The pervasive idea that writing represents speech
has actually elevated it, over time, above that which writing
should exist only to represent. Because it persists while language,
by its very nature, changes constantly, "it is possible
for the written representation to be held up as a model of what
the spoken reality ought to be" (Harris 1986: 46). Spoken
language change occurs so rapidly that the speech of a great-grandmother
might sound like a different dialect to her great-granddaughter.
However, if this language is written, the change will be slower,
and the gap between the written and the spoken language develops.
Additionally, as DeFrancis (1989) points out, writing allows
people to revisit the earlier forms of their own language.
Because we can review what we have written and change it until
it reflects exactly the sentiment we wish to express, writing
differs from transient speech. What effect does this have on
language processing and brain functioning? Some literate Japanese
speakers claim that they see the ideographic characters of their
writing system when they listen to the radio, while native speakers
of English tend to listen more to the sounds of the words they
are hearing. Evidence from Japanese dyslexics suggest that phonographic
and ideographic symbols are separately processed. Deficiencies
in processing the syllabic system were not paralleled by deficiencies
in processing the characters and vice-versa (Sasanuma 1980: 48-90).
While the left cerebral hemisphere is where phonetic analysis
occurs, the right hemisphere can deal with non-phonetic writing
systems. Sasanuma showed that Japanese characters were vulnerable
to different areas of brain injury compared to the syllabic system.
Logan (1986) presents the idea that abstract theoretical science
and thinking developed out of the dialogue of thought made possible
because of writing. Others agree. "Man's activities and
powers were roughly extended in proportion to the increased use
and perfection of written records" (Innis 1951:10). And,
some consider writing to be directly and completely linked to
modern society. Oppenheim states that "all the factors
geographic, social, economic leading towards a full civilization
simultaneously created a complex of conditions which could not
function properly without writing," and he goes on to say,
"writing exists only in a civilization and a civilization
cannot exist without writing" (1964:221-22). Gelb concurs,
"writing is of such importance that civilization cannot
exist without it and conversely, that writing cannot exist without
a civilization" (1963:5).
Basso's (1989) excellent article, "The Ethnography of Writing"
focuses on the importance of writing from an anthropological
viewpoint. "Nineteenth-century evolutionists seized upon
the presence or absence of writing as typological criteria which,
when used to define different levels of cultural development,
served handily to distinguish 'civilization' from its antecedent
stages" (1989: 425). More recently, Henry-Jean Martin (1995:
26) states that "literacy is a stepping stone to intellectual
freedom as well as an instrument of authority, and has been a
factor in the great revolutions of the world." He argues
that writing, because it is fixed, is an instrument of authority
but that this instrument has the power to liberate the mind,
referring to inspired revolutionaries fixed on songs and instigating
words, as much as writing (1995: 29). Civilization can be partially
defined by the existence of writing (Kraeling 1950) and, subsequently,
there is a sense that an unwritten language is somehow not worthy
of civilization. Basso also points out that when a group has
writing, it is only one of several communication channels. But,
it is one which interacts with all the others, affecting them,
being affected by them and, subsequently, providing unique access
to the users of that writing system. The bottom line for Basso
is that writing "is a supremely social act" (1989:425,
The Daily Uses of Writing
Although people have a sense that writing is an integral part
of their daily life, most do not ponder the details of this concept.
Walk around the downtown area of any big city and you will actually
be able to read the streets. Labeling, like most writing, is
often used for memory, but also to tell people how to find what
they are looking for, and to whom or to what something belongs.
Note-taking is another prevalent use for writing occurring absolutely
every day in the literate world and probably occurring almost
every day for all literate individuals. Usually when someone
is talking and the listener wants to remember what is being said,
notes will suffice. The concept behind note-taking is even more
significant than the various ways people take notes and the various
situations which lead them to do this.
Notes are useful for lectures, classes or any occasion in which
a listener wants or needs to remember in some detail what has
been said. One facet of this kind of note-taking involves diagramming
which can be the interface between drawing and writing, making
use of both necessarily. This kind of note-taking involves capturing
another person's ideas, but note-taking is perhaps most useful
to people for capturing and organizing their own thoughts. Lists
are excellent examples of this. Without the concept of the list,
many people who must run a household, manage the duties of work
or simply organize their days, could not function well. Lists
are the best way to capture brainstormed ideas, often for future
consideration and further organization.
Note-taking reflects the origins of rules and important policies.
Again, people may think about their mission statement or a program
concept, but without the intermediate stage in which notes are
tentatively jotted down, the ideas would never reach permanence.
Note-taking in a religious context is particularly interesting
because the origin of most religions begins with special humans
taking notes on the words of a deity. Not only do permanent texts
begin this way, but most religions accept the commentary (notes)
of scholars adding to the religion over time.
Another daily use for writing evolves out of record keeping,
which essentially refers to notes made permanent. A basic record
that most people use every day is the calendar. We must consider
our appointments through scheduling, which means dividing the
calendar into sections of time with written reminders of what
we will be doing. And, of course, a schedule can remind us what
we have been doing if we keep the divided calendar as a record.
Records of events are some of the most important documents in
Another kind of record is the certificate. A certificate is usually
that which marks a milestone. With "official" certificates
the world can keep track of itself on a personal and societal
level. We know exactly when people are born, finish school, earn
degrees, awards, join together in marriage, separate, and eventually
die. Again, this enhances our memory, which might not otherwise
occupy itself with so many details.
Writing is a tool used in the communication of different kinds
of information. Obviously, the most common and permanent way
to circulate information is through books. Magazines and journals
may be more common, but they may be less permanent. Newspapers
are probably the fastest way to circulate information to the
most people. Pamphlets, programs and memos may be used on a smaller
scale, but all these forms of disseminating information rely
How-to manuals and blueprints are used to pass along information
that will be used specifically to build things. There are a variety
of texts like this. Many people can learn how to program computers
or learn how to speak foreign languages because of writing and
books on these subjects.
The U.S. Post Office obviously runs because of writing, its main
function being that it allows people to communicate over long
distances. Mail has been one of the most significant ways written
information is passed around. Now there is the Internet. The
web of computer servers all over the world, which use a variety
of methods to pass electronic writing and other information around,
has grown so much that one can find almost any newspaper, many
businesses, and information on almost any topic online. The Internet
may become the largest circulation of written and other forms
of information as its number of users is growing rapidly.
Describing all of these daily uses for writing brings to light
how much modern society depends on the written word to function.
Furthermore, these uses of writing subtly describe and remind
people who are part of their in-group and who are not. To a person
who has trouble reading, or who cannot read the language around
him, the world is full of mysterious symbols and access to information
is hindered. A person who is not literate in the language of
the society around him will not feel fully part of this society.
Chapter 2 presented various writing systems explaining that a
partially ideographic (logographic) system has some advantages
in terms of the speed at which a person can read that kind of
system compared to a strictly phonetic system. The chapter outlined
how writing has affected people over time by being a simple memory
aid, a multipurpose aid and, possibly, a building block of civilization.
Finally, the chapter outlined the daily conveniences and uses