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 6
ASL as SignWriting


The Effects of Writing ASL
Writing ASL would open many intellectual avenues to Deaf people. It would certainly expand the use of ASL if the language could be expressed in another form; if it were written as well as signed. Furthermore, it might be better if Deaf students could already write their first language, ASL, before learning to write English. One teacher of deaf students, Cynthia Frey of Jordan Vocational High School, wrote in a SignWriting Web report (http://www.signwriting.org/teach013.html), "I want to help them develop literacy and improve their fluency in ASL which I feel will impact their education in general." She went on to write, "I have heard and seen evidence that ASL is the way to teach English. I feel SignWriting will help them improve their skills in both languages." ASL users might eventually create a body of literature in their first language. Writing ASL would mean a great deal to the daily workings of the Deaf community. All written communication and all of the daily uses of writing mentioned previously would be available to Deaf people in their native and unique language.
One woman signed, "it teaches the children the different grammatical structures, that is to say, the structure of ASL and how it differs from English structure. It would be nice to have SignWriting for the future and I hope that one day it will be incorporated into the educational system through the "bilingual-bicultural approach" (Say 1994). In addition to drastically improving deaf education, SignWriting will validate both ASL and Deaf culture, when a body of literature exists in Sign and the daily uses of writing by Deaf people occur in ASL. One of the final great accomplishments of SignWriting will occur when a dictionary of ASL is written completely in Sign, not bilingually, for use similar to the way hearing writers use a dictionary or thesaurus to help them better apply their native languages.

As this kind of dictionary develops, the number of signs will increase. This is because signers across the country use a variety of signs and continuously create signs, but currently these are used regionally and no amount of interaction can spread these signs fast enough throughout the country to every ASL signer. When ASL is written, however, every time a new sign is created, it can be circulated in writing through Deaf newspapers and literature and adopted into standard use. The language will develop and, as it changes, its history will be recorded.

The Future of Writing and the Deaf Community
With such potential success, why haven't the million ASL users in the U.S. been rushing to learn this, or some other writing system for Sign? New ideas are inevitably met with doubt. This has always been the case in particular with writing. "Any change or modification was met with great hesitation, and even today, attempts to reform spelling or eliminate inconsistencies in writing conventions meet with strong resistance" (Microsoft Encarta 1997). There are several protests to the idea of writing ASL. These protests are made by Deaf people and hearing alike, but are based on misinformation or misconception. The first and most innocuous protest is that the status quo is easier than instituting a new system. A more serious protest is that writing ASL will affect the language negatively. The most problematic resistance to writing Sign comes from those who think it will actually hurt the Deaf community to have a separate writing system. This section will consider these areas of protest and offer solutions to the problems submitted within these perspectives.

Why not just stick to writing in English? Because ASL is the first language of most Deaf people, and certainly the language of most access, writing it could improve access to written language in general, making the necessary learning of English go more smoothly. But, can Deaf people be bothered to learn to write in ASL? Many already have done this and although it may be more difficult to learn a new writing system as an adult, the motivation is probably higher. It has been high enough that educators have learned SignWriting in order to teach it to their students in the same way that hearing children learn to read English in Elementary school.

A realistic argument against SignWriting, as opposed to some of the systems based on the symbols on a typical keyboard, is that it takes too long to write. However, the pictographic nature of SignWriting means that it might take less time to read than other systems, just as sentences written in Chinese characters are more quickly read than the same sentences written in pinyin. Also, there is a computer program called SignWriter which enables quick writing of ASL in this system. And, there is a SignWriting shorthand. As more people use SignWriting, a quickly written shorthand will probably become the standard.

One final thought on communicating in ASL through writing is that soon enough computer technology will allow the pervasive use of video, so that messages in ASL can be maintained as they are and still be easily passed around. This position claims that computer improvements will allow for the easy transfer of video and photographs, meaning that newsletters, newspapers, notes etc. can be passed around over computer (desktop or hand-held) in video format. This may be true sometime in the future, but that would be equivalent to claiming that writing spoken languages will cease in the future when all of society will be sending videos of each other talking and will be listening/watching news reports and other information reports, given by videos of people, instead of continuing to make use of writing.

Many worry about the potentially negative effects that writing could have on Sign language. How can three dimensional space be written two-dimensionally and linearly? For example, setting up a person or object in the signing space is done and then that point in space is referred to throughout a conversation. Some of the writing systems do not seem to have a good way to do this, but SignWriting uses a break in the hand shape to show where a referent is in three dimensional space quite well. People also worry about the fact that, currently, the "oral" tradition is the norm in the Deaf community. They feel that writing signed stories might ruin this tradition. They are also concerned with the negative effects of standardization that a pervasive writing system will have on ASL, a language rich with its many dialects.

English, although a written language, has many regional dialects. The various ways of using ASL will probably remain the same, but each group of signers will benefit from being able to read ASL because they will be able to experience the dialects of other groups. Particularly, the number of lexical items in ASL should increase significantly. Currently, when signers encounter an idea or object with no sign they invent a sign to be used for an occasion. But, it takes a great deal of time for any of these signs to become lexical items in what is now considered standard ASL. If Sign were written, each new lexical item would be passed around through newsletters, notes, books, etc., and many would be adopted.
Some of the concerns on the part of Deaf and hearing people regarding writing ASL have to do with the tension between the Deaf and hearing worlds. There is a sense that, because English is already difficult for many deaf people to learn, if ASL were written that would be more incentive not to try to learn English. Or, the time spent learning to write and writing in ASL would take away from time spent learning English. This would have two kinds of effects. First, the Deaf would be further ostracized from the hearing world because of lack of English skills and their further immersion in their own society. Second, because around 90% of deaf people have hearing parents, it is already difficult to convince these parents to let their children be educated in ASL. If ASL were written, hearing parents might be even more threatened by the foreign nature of signing and the Deaf community. Many parents resist learning sign language. If it were a written language they might feel even more intimidated.

The effects of writing ASL will probably be almost the exact opposite of the fears described in the above paragraph. The reason many schools for the deaf have switched to a bilingual-bicultural approach to education is because teachers have found that strengthening first language skills and then teaching English as a second language is a more effective method than beginning with instruction in English. If the concept of writing were familiar to students when they began learning English and they could compare writing in English to writing in ASL, they might have even more success than they do now getting explanations in Sign, "orally," for written English. Having a writing system would probably lead to a much higher quality of education. In regard to education, one supporter of SignWriting wrote...*Footnote 16: http://www.signwriting.org/email055.html..., "The written form [of ASL] would serve the same purpose that the written from of French, etc., serves in the learning of spoken language" as a reinforcement of what is taught in and about the language orally. Parents would also respect ASL more because they would see it as a full language. Additionally, they could see their children's permanent creations in ASL. The probable improvements in English skills would also please parents. Students might even be more inclined to tackle other foreign languages beyond English and could certainly learn any of the Signed languages used in foreign countries written in SignWriting.

The real reason most people are averse to writing ASL is the newness of the idea, which makes most people feel uncomfortable, suspicious and uncertain. However, I predict that a Deaf community with a written Sign Language would be more respected and more visible in the hearing world. The dialogue between the signing community and the non-signing community might take place on more equal terms.

Language is elevated by writing...*Footnote 17... I When there is a language situation which is described as diglossia, a society is using two languages but one is more prestigious and valued more. This can often mean that the standard is written but not spoken. It can mean that both are spoken but the one that is written is taken to be the standard. In medieval western Europe, Latin was written and spoken among the educated, and while many other languages were spoken, these were not written and were considered dialects. The value of a language has been at times directly related to its being written and its body of literature being developed (Hock and Joseph 1996).

*Footnote 17:
In regard to changing forms of German: "What turned this language from a regionally based and sectarian form of German into a truly national medium was its use by the Romantic and Classical literary writers, especially Goethe and Schiller" (Hock and Joseph 1996:333).

Writing languages which are considered dialects, especially when the people have an official language which they are supposed to write, has always been controversial. Even the concept of writing was once a controversial idea. Harris (1986:157) states that:

It took a conceptual revolution in prehistoric times to realize that graphic signs can show what is invisible as clearly and as fully as they can show what is visible; that they can capture certain structures of aural or manipulative or kinetic experience just as definitely as certain structures of visual experience.

Harris was referring to the realization that pictures and symbols could be used for sound and speech. It was a revolutionary concept and in a sense, it suggests that writing Signed languages might even be more natural than writing spoken language, since this kind of writing entails the use of visual symbols to code visual language.

SignWriting Supporters
Many supporters of writing Signed languages have written their thoughts on the subject over a SignWriting listserve made possible through the (DAC) Deaf Action Committee based in La Jolla, California. These people are Deaf and hearing, they are educators, students and anyone interested in writing Signed language. Many of their words inspired this thesis. SignWriting's inventor, Valerie Sutton, wrote...

*Footnote 18: http://www.signwriting.org/email068.html

.."I envisioned books, literature and newspapers written in the movements of signed languages, read by Deaf children and Deaf adults. It was my dream to someday empower people with their own pens and their own thoughts, writing in their own languages."

A hearing supporter writes on the topic of perceiving unwritten languages as not "real languages" and the prejudices that the Deaf community face...

*Footnote 19.. http://www.signwriting.org/email070.html..

I "The first step to overcoming some of the prejudice is to be able to point out, and point out proudly, here's how we write our language!" Many reiterate these ideas in various ways showing that a new idea can be accepted over time. Slowly but surely the movement to write ASL will continue to advance.

...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