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 5, Part One
Writing ASL in SignWriting

This section will discuss the way ASL can be written effectively. A good writing system for a Signed language should have an approximately one-to-one correspondence between symbol and sign formational aspect. It should not be difficult to write or read, including the direction on a page in which it is written...*Footnote 7... It should handle the three-dimensionality of signing. SignWriting will be discussed in detail as the strongest choice for a standard ASL writing system.

*Footnote 7:
Boustrophedon is probably not an option, but writing from top to bottom, similar to Chinese, seems an effective way of writing ASL.


Although not all of the people who have worked on inventing writing systems for signed languages have been linguists, almost all proposed systems make an attempt at capturing the phonemic or cheremic...*Footnote 8... characteristics of Sign.

*Footnote 8: A chereme refers to the basic linguistic unit of sign language (see Matthews 1997: 112).

The systems which rely on arbitrary symbols to represent the sign formational aspects, like handshape, movement and location, are less effective because they are more difficult to remember...*Footnote 9: See Appendix B for Stokoe Notation.

These systems, which often use a combination of letters and symbols found on a keyboard to represent the formational aspects, have the advantage of being easy to type or write once the meanings behind the familiar symbols are learned. However, these systems do not capture the three dimensional quality of sign language.

SignWriting is not difficult to remember because the pieces which make up any given written sign are somewhat iconic, and it is useful across sign languages because its parts have "phonetic" qualities. It could be considered a notational system for Signed languages similar to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and its capability to represent any language.

There are specific features of Signed languages which call for the creation of a different conception of writing. ASL will be considered here and the effectiveness of SignWriting at handling these features will be discussed. The most obvious feature which makes a signed language distinct from spoken language is its medium. When writing English, intonation, quality and the tone of voice may not be well-represented. Punctuation aids in distinguishing questions from statements, but writing is usually open to a great deal of interpretation when read aloud. Similarly, some details of signing will naturally be left out when written. It is important to distinguish what in a signed utterance must be written to preserve meaning and what can be left to the reader's interpretation.

The idea of writing ASL is controversial to some, but people have been trying to write it since William Stokoe first attempted linguistic analysis on the communication system used at Gallaudet in the 1960's. Stokoe realized that the students were employing language as opposed to gestures when they signed. He was the first person to analyze ASL linguistically and created a notation system to write it. In his first linguistic text on ASL, A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, he divided American Sign Language into the signed equivalent of "phonemes." His parameters included handshape, location and movement and he created symbols with which to write fifty-five sign "phonemes." His system was intended for use in linguistic analysis, not for practical writing among ASL users and there was never a movement to use it for written communication...*Footnote 10: See Appendix B for Stokoe Notation.

SignWriting was invented by Valerie Sutton and several Deaf signers in 1974 in Denmark. In the United States, over the next ten years, Sutton worked to promote SignWriting, presenting at the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching, in Chicago in 1977, publishing texts and papers in SignWriting and leading workshops teaching the system. From 1981 to 1984 Sutton published the SignWriter Newspaper. After working on several technical manuals, the Deaf Action Committee published their newsletter which was mailed to around 7,000 people twice a year from 1991 to 1996. Since then, the SignWriter Newsletter has been published on the Internet twice a year at http://www.signwriting.org. SignWriting is currently used in fourteen countries. The main attractions of this system are its universality, the fact that it can be used to write any Signed language and the fact that its creators have developed a computer program to ease its writing.

The pieces that are used in SignWriting to create any number of signs, including new lexical items, can describe each parameter, including handshape, movement, location, palm orientation or non-manual sign. SignWriting is made up of over 600 symbols which can describe all of these parameters as well as palm orientation and non-manual signs. For example, the handshape in which the thumb, index and middle fingers are extended is used in many signs in which its shape alone holds no morphological value, but this handshape can signify the number three. In one sign which makes use of this handshape, "lousy," the thumb touches the nose and moves away from the face in a downward arc. In that sign, the handshape has no morphological value. Signing "week," "month," or "age" with this same handshape, as opposed to with a basic "1" handshape (a closed hand with an extended forefinger), would inflect each lexical item respectively for number (i.e., "three weeks" versus "one week" etc.).

SignWriting treats these morphological inflections descriptively, just as it deals with all signs. If anything, SignWriting currently over-accounts for sign formational aspects by including too much detail. For example, SignWriting has a way to signify right or left shoulder forward, lowered or raised, and a great deal of detail regarding head position. SignWriting can also deal with the problems of inflected adjectives, through dynamic symbols which signify speed or quality of a movement. Classifiers are usually handshapes in ASL which are used to establish a person or an object in the signing space and can be referred to continuously throughout a conversation. SignWriting makes use of a tension symbol to signify classifiers.

Although there are over six hundred SignWriting symbols used to represent all the various handshapes, movements, locations and necessary details to pictorially represent a signing person, there are only ten groups of handshapes, based on which fingers are used in a handshape. In each of these groups there can be from four to over ten different base handshapes. Each of those base handshapes can be written six different ways depending on palm orientation and location in the signing space...*Footnote 11: See Appendix D.

These go beyond what is necessary to distinguish signs at a cheremic level but this is why SignWriting is used for over ten different Signed languages world wide. What makes this system particularly easy to learn is its iconicity. One need only learn the conventions for drawing the symbol of a hand and hand placement in the signing space, (palm-in, palm-out, palm-side, arm out) to apply this knowledge fairly consistently to most of the symbols. The facial expression symbols are also transparent. Only the movement and some of the body location symbols might require some study to master.

One of the most exciting developments in this movement has been the recent literacy project. Although SignWriting is used in other countries, like Denmark and Nicaragua, to teach deaf children in their native Signed languages, it has not been used in the United States in this way. The literacy project was launched recently and there are currently four school systems getting ready to teach their deaf students to use this writing system. Most Deaf people are averse to writing ASL when they are first presented with the idea, claiming that it is unnecessary. They are usually threatened by the new idea and suspicious of it. However, once they become familiar with SignWriting, they seem to find it an invaluable tool for expression and education.

Facial expressions are always present in the signing of ASL. Quite often the placement of the brow and mouth position are distinctive in that changing the facial expression would change the meaning of the sign. Furthermore, when the facial expression is not of direct importance to the meaning of a particular sign, it is likely to function grammatically. For example, when a clause is marked by raised eyebrows a conditional statement is implied and the observer expects the condition to follow. The same clause signed with eyebrows furrowed would be in regular question form. The English sentence, "If it rains tomorrow, the game will be canceled" relies on non-manual signs for expression in ASL. Without the necessary raised eyebrows, a head tilt and possibly a short pause, the signed utterance could mean either, "It will rain tomorrow and the games will be canceled" or "Will it rain tomorrow? The game will be canceled." SignWriting handles this in the following way. See Figure 5.


Figure 5...*Footnote 12...
Writing a Conditional Clause

*Footnote 12: From Lessons in SignWriting by Valerie Sutton. If not otherwise noted, all figures are from this source with permission by Valerie Sutton.

Without the raised eyebrows, indicated above in SignWriting, the sentence would be ambiguous.
Most writing systems do not handle facial expressions at all. SignWriting can handle them but excludes them from structures in which they mark the tone of the utterance as opposed being integral to the inherent meaning of it. Furthermore, while the method for writing facial expressions is simple, the shorthand seems to exclude them most of the time because either context elucidates the correct facial expression, or the note-taker's memory will suffice for rewriting a passage in full SignWriting later. The shorthand is usually used to write quickly what someone is signing and is often revisited later to be fleshed out on computer.

The three dimensional aspect of signing is difficult to capture with a linear writing system like English in which each symbol follows the next. Instead, a sign should be presented as a whole entity with all its features simultaneously represented just as they simultaneously occur. SignWriting is particularly well equipped to handle this aspect of all Signed languages. It is written from the signer's perspective and read in the same way. This is in keeping with the way ASL is signed. For example, when describing an object, the signer will do so from his or her point of view, not the point of view of the observer. Furthermore, when giving directions in sign language, the signer will also give them from his or her own point of view if a separate reference point is lacking. See figure 6.

Figure 6:
Giving Directions (Smith, Lentz and Mikos 1988)

The way SignWriting handles three dimensional space is through the coloring of a given piece of any sign. For example, a handshape has a base form in SignWriting. See Figure 7.

Figure 7:
Base Handshape

This hand is held vertically, parallel to the wall and with the palm in.

But, whether it is colored in, left blank, half-colored in or open between the hand and fingers tells the position of the hand in three dimensional space. See Figures 8 and 9.



Figure 8:
Modifying the Base Handshape




Figure 9:
Modifying the Base Handshape

This is an integral part of what makes SignWriting more effective than other writing systems. Signers often use their sign space, a restricted area in front of their bodies, to set up referents which they will then refer to over the course of their discussion of those people or objects. It is much easier to observe and keep track of this phenomenon using SignWriting compared with other writing systems.
One problem with writing ASL involves adverbs or inflected adjectives. Unlike English intonation, sometimes used to stress an adjective, "stress" on an adjective in ASL inflects the sign. For example, the word "fast" can be said with lengthening of the fricative /f/ and the first vowel /ae/ in English to mean "very fast." This is usually not represented in writing. Sometimes italics or underlining suggest a certain stressing of a word but the exact kind of stressing is still open to interpretation. In ASL, the duration of the sign, whether it is lengthened or signed more quickly than usual, depends on and reflects the meaning of the inflection. This means that while it is appropriate in English to say "really fast" or "incredibly fast," ASL adverbs use inflections most often based on movement change when signing an adjective. SignWriting includes symbols for such movements...*Footnote 13...

*Footnote 13: SignWriting symbols for "fast": "Very fast":


...continue Chapter 5, Part 2...

...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