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 2. The SignWriting System

2.1 History and background

The SignWriting System was created and by Valerie Sutton, for the Center of Sutton Movement Writing, in 1974. It reached it present, stable version, around 1985 (see the SignWriting history). Since 1995, the system is present in the Web, in the site http://www.signwriting.org/.

Various systems, other than SignWriting, have been proposed for writing deaf sign languages (e.g., HamNoSys - the Hamburg Notation System; Stoke system - derived from the work of the linguist that pioneered sign language linguistics). Such systems usually employ alphanumeric characters, with specially assigned meanings, for representing linguistic aspects of signs, usually aiming at the linguist developing specialized work in sign language linguistics. As such, they are more of a notation system for writing about sign languages, then a notation system for writing in sign languages.

The SignWriting system, on the other hand, was conceived within the general program of the Sutton Movement Writing initiative, which is that of representing movements as such, as they are visually perceived, and not for the eventual meaning that such movements can be transmitting. For instance, in the realm of dance, a DanceWriting system was devised, where dance movements are represented (choreographed) without concern to the meanings the dancer may attempting to transmit to the audience.

With respect to sign languages, the SignWriting system was invented within the same general approach. It provides means for representing signs, as they are visually perceived, as organized sequences of gestures, not for the eventual linguistic content they may be conveying.

This brings a lot of advantages, from the viewpoint of a writing system for sign languages. First, the system can be used by linguists to write about sign languages, because it provides a means for the representation of the syntactical and so-called phonetic and phonologic aspects of signs, in a way that is clearly neutral with respect to meanings.

On the other hand, as the system is based on a set of graphical and schematic symbols that are highly intuitive, and as it uses simple rules for combining symbols into signs, it provides a simple and effective way for common deaf (and hearing) people, that have no special technical training in sign language linguistics, to write in sign languages.

This intuitiveness seems to be the main driving force for the systems increasing acceptance among people interested in written forms for sign languages. Another main driving force for such increasing acceptance is the SignWriter program, a very easy to use graphical editor for sign language texts, developed by Richard Gleaves, around 1995. The program is available as shareware from the SignWriting website.

Also, written signs have been use extensively as icons in pages of sign language websites, a feature that has contributed to the spreading of SignWriting.

In summary, due to the system's emphasis on the purely visual aspect of the signs, it is looks as the most promising current approach to a true writing system for sign languages. And that is the reason for which we have chosen it as the writing system employed in our sign language processing research work, which at the present emphasizes the deployment and processing of sign language documents on the web.