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International Use of SignWriting

The international aspect of SignWriting is shown by the number of countries (currently 14) where it is used as a teaching or research tool. The following list describes some of those applications.
· United States-The Salk Institute uses SignWriting in its research to record classifiers, which are difficult to gloss in English.
· Nicaragua-Since 1985, Dr. Judy Shepard-Kegl has been involved in studying Nicaraguan sign language. "To help the deaf children of rural Nicaragua master reading more quickly and easily, Judy Shepard-Kegl and her husband, James, are experimenting with an innovative solution: the use of sign writing as a first step in learning to read." (Rutgers Focus, Feb. 14, 1997) Recently, she received a grant of $366,856 from the National Science Foundation to help conduct an intensive survey of Nicaragua's deaf population. She is transcribing Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense (ISN, or Nicaraguan sign language) into SignWriting. This work has gotten considerable attention, including BBC TV documentary coverage.
· Spain-A 3000-sign dictionary in SignWriting was produced in 1996. Sutton spent several months creating symbols for handshapes used in Spanish and Portuguese signs that weren't part of her symbology at the time.
· Mexico-In 1992, a linguistics team began assembling 3000 Mexican signs in SignWriting.
· Italy-Work on a dictionary of Italian signs in SignWriting started in 1991.
· Ireland-In 1994, the Irish government funded The Irish Sign Language Project, in which SignWriting is being used to create Irish Sign Language dictionaries.
· Denmark-As might be expected, SignWriting has a longer history here. It has been used in Danish schools of Deaf education since 1982 to help teach Danish Sign Language (DSL) to deaf children and their hearing parents.
· Brazil-Children's books have been produced in SignWriting, and the SignWriter computer program is being used to record Brazilian signs.

SignWriting and the Deaf Community

Most of Sutton's testimonials from Deaf users begin by admitting initial skepticism or irritation. (The following three comments are all transcriptions of interpreter Melissa Smith's English words from a 1994 videotape, "Deaf Perspectives on SignWriting.")
· Denny Voreck is typical: "It looked like Chinese characters to me. It was really weird...I thought it was little bit crazy...Now, I feel that SignWriting is very innovative and different. It is unique! All great inventions start with experiments."
· Similar sentiments were expressed by Kathleen Say: "I couldn't understand what it could possibly be for, and what it was worth. I was very much against it. When I came here to San Diego [to work as a researcher at the Salk Institute] I heard again about SignWriting...I decided to go and see for fun what it would be like. I met Valerie Sutton and I started to learn and I learned a lot. And I also learned how valuable it is...It teaches the children the different grammatical structures, that is to say, the structure of ASL and how it differs from English structure...I hope the Deaf Community will accept writing sign as a part of the language, as a written language, because many languages have a spoken form as well as a written form."
· On the same video, Bonita Ewan [fourth-generation Deaf; Gallaudet grad in Communications, works at Salk Institute] added: "When I first heard about SignWriting, I strongly disagreed. I thought it was totally unnecessary. I wanted to meet Valerie Sutton, because I was curious...I wanted to see if it was interesting and sure enough...I became fascinated with SignWriting...it is a wonderful opportunity for Deaf people to be able to understand and to preserve ASL and ASL stories...It would also be good for mainstreaming programs and for use with ASL storytelling."

George "Butch" Zein, a fifth-generation Deaf individual, sent me the following e-mail on 10/23/97: "[SignWriting] is a great tool to record any sign language. I have used it myself and been involved with SignWriting for about 3 years...[I] hope that one day people will accept this writing system as a way to record sign language especially American Sign Language which is a native language of mine."

Darline Clark, DAC staff member, wrote in an e-mail to me (10/23/97): "It is wonderful to have Sign Writing to be able to write in ASL. I know at first, Sign Writing appeared too complicated to learn...however, it is not true! It is really easy to learn and fast! I am Deaf and an author of Sign Writing Children's stories."

James Womack, a Deaf ASL instructor and former Gallaudet professor, recently invited Valerie Sutton to the Community College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas to present an all-day introduction to SignWriting. His response included the following comments [e-mail to the SignWriting Forum, 11/18/97]: "Those attending left amazed at SignWriting's potential impact on Deaf education and ASL instruction as well as teaching written ASL/English translation skills to Deaf children and college students...I am personally so impressed I hope to be sent to California to learn SignWriting thoroughly enough to teach it as a course at CCSN."

SignWriting has also gained support among some sign language researchers. Ronice M. Quadros, a Brazilian researcher now living in the U.S., writes [e-mail to the SignWriting Forum, 10/25/97]: "I am native signer, but I am hearing person and I am learning to write signwriting. Signwriting has been useful to me because I am doing research about Brazilian Sign Language in syntax and I think that is much easier to write the examples from this language in signwriting than to write in any other system. Moreover, I like to write things that I think in sign language through signwriting."

Not all the comments I received or collected were favorable. Rhett M., a hearing graduate student of Deaf Education at the University of Texas, in two separate 10/23/97 e-mail notes to me, wrote: "I find signwriting not the most practical thing, and here in Texas I've never met someone who uses it and even very few people who have even heard of it (most of them are professors here)....I've yet to meet a deaf person who has heard of it...and I work at the Texas school for the deaf!...the professors I have talked to have not expressed interest, in fact they say that signwriting is an inferior way to diagram signs since it focuses too much on accents and dialectal differences, whereas traditional glossing does not require a new typing system and is easily interpretable by a wider academic audience without the worry and possible confusion of accented handshapes."

Another correspondent, username "Handy," reported [e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/27/97]: "I just spent a couple days in La Jolla where Sign Writing originates. I was able to ask a few people what they thought of it. Not one of them liked the idea of Sign Writing. Most of them thought that it was unnecessary, confusing to write or dare I say it, too self serving for the authors. Remember, those aren't my opinions."

To this, University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate Christian Vogler [10/27/97] added, "a major problem is that people are not likely to catch on to learning a new writing system, unless they are very young when they are introduced to it. We had a similar case in Germany with a different written form of sign language [HamNoSys?]. The adult deaf were not so keen on using it. But when one deaf education student explained it (inofficially) to some children at the local deaf school, they went bonkers over it. They absolutely loved it...So it seems to make a lot of sense to expose children to a written form of sign language early."

Some Deaf people seem to automatically reject SignWriting because the idea of writing down a visual language is distasteful or appears illogical. They feel that any written form of a signed language fails to capture every nuance of signing. While this is true, it may also be, as Steve Hier pointed out, ultimately beside the point [e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/24/97]: "True, sign writing fails to indicate this or that (usually facial expressions or 'force'), but then again, written English fails to encode the 'tone' of voice being used...I really wish people would stop expecting written forms of a sign language to what other written languages have failed to do for thousands of years. I think, if they would just get on with things, they might end up with a usable system rather than trying to do what (up until now) has not been possible."

Another related objection to SignWriting is that it is simply unnecessary, except perhaps as a research tool, due to the existence of video, which has the ability to capture the total spectrum of sign syntax. But a number of people have pointed out-rightly, I believe-that the two media are not mutually exclusive, and have different purposes and utility. Ingvild Roald, for example, wrote from Norway [e-mail to DEAF-L 10/24/97]: "..writing [has] a smaller as well as a wider range than direct communication. Video just freezes the direct utterance, there is no room for personal contact nor for individual interpretation." To which Valerie Sutton replied [10/27/97]: "There are times that writing a language is actually more accurate than videotaping it, because the writer takes time to think things through, where videotape can blur what is said. People sometimes mumble when they communicate directly. But most of the time, when we write a language, we try to make it clear. So there is a different focus when you write."

The Future of SignWriting

Some correspondents to the DEAF-L discussion about SignWriting mentioned that real-time transmission of video (videophones) by means of the Web, new types of phone line transmission lines, or other electronic medium will soon make any written form of sign obsolete. Brad Ingrao [e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/21/97] made such a case: "We will be able to, prior to the millennium, have real time sign communication for the current cost of TTY's and long distance charges... Speed, force or intent of movement... are so critical to signed languages that a written, grapheme based system that cannot convey them will be interesting, but not practical."

A related area of technology is computerized "sign recognition," analogous to voice-recognition systems whereby people can talk to and be understood by a computer, without keyboard or mouse interface. Researchers at the University of Delaware and elsewhere have successfully tested neural network technology that recognizes fingerspelling shapes. But full sign-recognition capability may be a long time off, according to Christian Vogler [e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/22/97]: "The current state of the art is recognizing isolated signs from a 200+ sign vocabulary with 91% accuracy and recognizing unconstrained connected sign sentences from a 53 sign vocabulary with 96% accuracy. In its current state, sign language recognition is nowhere as sophisticated as the latest speech recognition technology. Not surprisingly, the field is still in its infancy."

Regardless of the pace of technology, it seems to me unlikely that sign-recognition software would necessarily supplant a written form of sign. As has been repeatedly argued, "videotaping signs and writing signs are not in competition with each other! They have different purposes, and both are needed. Actually they can be used together beautifully. For me, the best way to explain this is to look at audiotape and written English. People did not throw out reading and writing English when the audio tape machine was invented. Sometimes it is nice to write on a piece of paper without a machine." [Valerie Sutton, e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/21/97]

One interesting area of application for SignWriting is to help promote sign bilingualism-a bilingualism consisting not of a spoken and a signed language, but of two different signed languages. This is a largely untapped area for future experiment and research. Sutton has repeatedly stressed that one of SignWriting's strengths is that it isn't restricted to a specific signed language: "SignWriting is so neutral - we just write body movement and it is up to the writer as to which grammar, syntax and Sign Language they choose." [e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/21/97] This idea was also explored by Tane Akematsu [e-mail to DEAF-L, 10/25/97]: "Research on bi-literacy with other languages would suggest that there are two levels of knowledge required to write in a second language. First one must know the other language (e.g., have a large enough vocabulary, know the grammatical rules, the sematic constraints, the pragmatic rules, etc.). Second, one must know the orthography of the language; the more similar, the easier the transfer between the languages is...I think SignWriting may be terrifically useful for biliteracy in two SIGNED languages, since one would then be using the same orthography and be working in two languages from the same modality. I still maintain that SignWriting, in its current state, is a great way to notate signed languages, and can be wonderfully useful for people studying signed languages as languages."

The debate over SignWriting, more than 20 years after its inception, continues. Meanwhile, the DAC forges ahead with plans for new SignWriting ventures. One 1998 project is an online SignWriting Chat Room, accessible through the Web site, whereby participants could type to each other in full SignWriting symbology. Despite health problems, Valerie Sutton continues to produce articles, training materials, and videos about SignWriting and actively collects material about how the system has been used in research, classrooms, or any Deaf communication context. SignWriting itself continues to evolve and improve year by year. Just recently the traditional left-right presentation (rows of sign symbols) was changed to a vertical columns of symbols read top to bottom. As Sutton explained to me [e-mail 10/28/97]: "SignWriting is in a constant state of flux - but that is why it is working - because we are so flexible. For example, we are now writing vertically, not horizontally, so that is a big change. This has happened at the request of our Deaf native signing members." The vitality of SignWriting, and one of its best claims to growing acceptance, lies in its dynamic response to the needs and insights of its Deaf users.


My two most important sources of information were the extensive SignWriting® Web site (http://www.SignWriting.org) and a substantial packet of Deaf Action Committee materials sent to me by Valerie Sutton.

Ms. Sutton also very generously forwarded to me copies of her e-mail correspondence with many people on the topic of SignWriting. She was most gracious in answering my questions about her system and in pointing me to-or giving me outright-additional sources of information.

Comments about SignWriting from deaf and hearing persons were collected from electronic mail I received in response to my posted request on the DEAF-L listserver. Specific authors and dates of any quoted material from electronic correspondence are noted in the body of the paper. Similarly, the sources of quotations from videotape transcriptions or from printed materials provided by the Deaf Action Committee are noted in the text.

Information about the Hamburg Sign Language Notation System (HamNoSys) was found on the Web at: http://www.sign-lang.uni-hamburg.de/Projects/HamNoSys.html

Links to Web sites dealing with current research on sign-recognition technology can be found at: http://www.cis.upenn.edu/~cvogler/research/research.html

Bill Collins