Learn To
Transcribe Sign Language
in SignWriting

Valerie Sutton



SignWriting Began With Video Transcription
To learn to transcribe Sign Language videos, you first need to understand the structure of SignWriting and how the system developed.

The writing system has no connection to any signed language. To write signs from video, you do not have to know their meaning. In fact, to record pure movement, you are actually at a disadvantage if you know what the signs mean. Signers can become so interested in what is being said, that they forget to write what they see!

Since SignWriting is a "generic" movement writing system, not associated with any one signed language, it becomes a tool for beginning Sign Language students, to record signs they do not know. Researchers can write signing styles and mime-like gestures they have never seen before.

First Video Transcription in 1974 in Denmark
SignWriting began with a video transcription project at the University of Copenhagen. Lars von der Lieth, Jan Enggaard, and other researchers, wanted to record hearing person's gestures, and compare them to Deaf people's gestures.

The research group asked me to view a videotape for three months. It was a very interesting video, with hearing people doing movements many hearing people take for granted, when speaking. The video also included Deaf people doing movements I had never seen before. That was the beginning of SignWriting. I developed a way to write signs, from viewing and studying several videotapes. See Figure 1.

I did not know Danish Sign Language at that time. In fact, I knew nothing about signed languages. This was very fortunate, since from that original video transcription project, SignWriting evolved to record any signed language in the world, or any mime-like gesture.

Figure 1.

The result of the first SignWriting
video transcription project was this publication:

Hørende Danskeres Gestus-Repertoire
(Hearing Danes' Gesture-Repertoire)
Published in 1978

This published research, by Jan Enggaard, used SignWriting to record hearing person's gestures. The research was conducted at the Audiologopædisk Forskningsgruppe, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, directed by Lars von der Lieth.

As you can see by the example above, a stick figure drawing, with shoulders, arms and hands recorded movement from left to right on the page, position by position. I transcribed this frame by frame from video.



Have more questions about SignWriting?
Write to the system's inventor:

Valerie Sutton