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How to Read SignWriting

Though the symbology of SignWriting at first appears extremely complex, a number of signs can be fairly quickly recognized by a person with some experience with ASL. Certain conventions and handshapes must be memorized and practiced, but these become familiar fairly quickly.

The symbols in SignWriting are all shown from the expressive, not the receptive, viewpoint.

I think it is significant that SignWriting encompasses the five phonetic components of any sign: it depicts handshape, movement (including contact), location, palm orientation, and nonmanual signals such as head tilts, mouth shapes, eyebrow movement, shoulder raises, eye gazes, and nods. It also includes determiners, various kinds of pauses, and symbols to indicate the "pace" of a sentence. The scope of this paper will only permit a few examples to indicate the structure of SignWriting. For instance, palm orientation is indicated by black and white handshapes: if a hand symbol is shown in white (hollow), it means that the signer can see his own palm. The back of the hand is shown by a black symbol. To indicate palm right or left (again, from the signer's perspective), the handshape symbol (here a flat hand) is shown half black and half white as appropriate.


 Similarly, here are a few basic handshapes shown with their respective SignWriting symbols:

 Below are two handshapes (a "1" and "D" handshape) as they would be drawn when held in three different positions from the signer's perspective. Note that some symbols (the overhead view) show a slight separation between the finger and the rest of the hand; this is SignWriting's convention to indicate that the hand is parallel to the floor rather than held vertically in front of the signer.

Finally, below are some complete SignWriting symbols using these handshapes. Direction arrows, like the handshapes themselves, are from the signer's perspective. The * symbol indicates contact. Note that the DO-DO symbol also represents the lowered eyebrows, upward head tilt, and "oo" mouth shape that are an essential part of the sign.

SignWriting as a Literacy and Linguistic Tool

SignWriting is not the only way of "writing" signs. The tab/dez/sig system developed by William Stokoe also does this, but the Stokoe symbols are often arbitrary, not iconic. Similarly, the Movement-Hold notation created by Robert Johnson and Scott Liddell uses English words to describe the physical actions of signing. SignWriting, on the other hand, provides graphic shapes and motions that match the signer's movements.

SignWriting has inspired imitation as well. HamNoSys (Hamburg Sign Language Notation System) is another phonetic transcription system created in about 1987. Like SignWriting, HamNoSys features handshape symbols designed to suggest actual handshapes, promotes its international utility, and offers software to help produce the handshape symbols (which seem to me to be less literal and less quickly recognizable than those in the Sutton system).

But what is the value of any written representation of Sign? Sutton's premise is that, just as users of spoken language also have a written form of their language appropriate for certain purposes, there is value in being able to read a visual language. An alphabet is not a language, but merely a tool for recording a language that already exists; similarly, SignWriting is a tool for recording the elements of visual language. It simply records, it does not seek to change the language.

Normally, people learning another language can obtain textbooks written in their native language. Lucinda O'Grady Batch was born Deaf to a Deaf family, and was the first person to write articles in ASL for The SignWriter Newspaper. Lucinda writes in the DAC brochure "Who Uses SignWriting" (pp. 46­47): "Deaf Americans are one of the very few linguistic minorities that are unable to get books teaching English in their native Language...Deaf people will benefit greatly from books explaining English grammar and idioms written in ASL." Batch also thinks SignWriting can be used to preserve Deaf poetry and stories, and permit Deaf poets and playwrights to compose in their native language.

There is evidence that SignWriting is a viable tool for teaching sign "literacy." For example, as an experiment, Sutton once visited a school for Deaf children in New Hampshire. She wrote her notation for "hello" on the blackboard, and the students immediately understood the symbology and began to experiment with "writing" signs themselves to each other. Although using a computer program to help produce the signs is faster, SignWriting can be done manually. There is even a method of SignWriting Shorthand that was intended for sign language stenography, and which can be used as an informal "handwriting" system as well. Handwritten SignWriting was employed in an international Deaf pen-pal club that existed in the 1980s.

According to Sutton, children can learn to read English with greater ease if they can see both languages written correctly on paper. Lucinda O'Grady Batch agrees: "[SignWriting] can also be used in language education. More and more schools for the Deaf are using 'bilingual-bicultural approach' in the classroom. SignWriting could be added to the curriculum in such programs, to enhance Deaf people's own language, ASL." (Transcription of interpreter voice-over of 1994 videotape "Deaf Opinions of SignWriting")

Another example of a classroom success story with SignWriting is described by Patti Togioka (e-mail to Valerie Sutton, 9/16/97), who encouraged Deaf children to read Goldilocks and the Three Bears in SignWriting at the Oregon School for the Deaf: "It was one of the most awesome experiences I've ever had with kids!!! The kids not only read the signs, they fixed up one of the signs I had read incorrectly, they put periods next to the darkened lines, they added commas at the double lines and they READ the story. We then transferred it to written English and they labeled the Sign Writing and wrote in English...I think that because they had no preconceived notions of what is and is not ASL, they felt comfortable with the Sign Writing. They LOVED the activity...By the third page of the story, the kids were figuring out the signs by themselves with no assistance from me."

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