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