Writing Signed Languages
In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System

Amy Rosenberg
Master's Thesis, University of Kansas
Department of Linguistics, 1999

...back to Table of Contents....
Introduction Chapter 5, Part 1 Appendix B
Chapter 1 Chapter 5, Part 2 Appendix C
Chapter 2 Chapter 6 Appendix D & E
Chapter 3 Summary & Bibliography Appendix F
Chapter 4 Appendix A Appendix G

Chapter 2
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 1947: 208).

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 1995:25 ).

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 system.

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 place.

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, 432).

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 society.

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 on writing.

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 of writing.

...back to Table of Contents....
Introduction Chapter 5, Part 1 Appendix B
Chapter 1 Chapter 5, Part 2 Appendix C
Chapter 2 Chapter 6 Appendix D & E
Chapter 3 Summary & Bibliography Appendix F
Chapter 4 Appendix A Appendix G

Write to the author...

Amy Rosenberg