History of SignWriting

Chapter 3: SignWriting
Early Years in USA
1975 - 1980

The years 1975 - 1980 were transition years. Focus slowly shifted from DanceWriting to SignWriting. From 1975 to 1985, DanceWriting was a requirement for graduation at the Boston Conservatory of Music, in the Dance Department. Valerie Sutton was on the Conservatory's faculty from 1975 to 1979. Then, in 1979, Sutton became a 6-month consultant to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), in Rochester, New York, working with Dr. Frank Caccamise and his team on a series of booklets called "The Technical Signs Manuals", which used symbols from SignWriting for illustrations. These books continue to be published today.

The early years in Boston were important ones. In 1977, Judy Shepard-Kegl was a graduate student in linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Judy was open-minded to the idea of writing signs, and arranged for the first SignWriting workshop in the United States, to the New England Sign Language Society (NESLS), held at MIT. The group, which consisted of signed language linguists from MIT, Northeastern University, Brandeis, University of Massachusetts and Boston University, was "a spirited group", and the ensuing debate brought up important issues. That first workshop influenced the system for the better.

1977 was a year filled with "first experiences". The National Theater of the Deaf was the first group of Deaf adults to learn SignWriting, and Sutton presented her first paper on SignWriting to the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching in Chicago. During her presentation, Sutton invited Dr. Stokoe to talk to the group as well.

The early years were also filled with experiments. One day, Sutton received permission from a school in Manchester, New Hampshire, to visit one class of Deaf students for one hour. There, Sutton wrote the sign for "hello" on the blackboard in SignWriting. The students guessed it immediately. They became quite excited when they found they could read basic signs in a matter of minutes. They jumped up and started writing signs themselves on the blackboard. Then other students would try to guess what they wrote...and they guessed correctly! These kids were all skilled in signing, but did not necessarily know how to read English well. It was an inspiring experience that has since been repeated with other classes and other teachers.

Below is a listing of the events and publications during the early years...



Spring 1976
American Manual Alphabet in SignWriting

Illustrated by Jayne Gunderson. No longer in print.



Spring, 1977
First SignWriting Workshop in USA, at MIT in Boston.

A group of Sign Language linguists from the New England Sign Language Society learned SignWriting. The workshop was held at MIT, arranged by Dr. Judy Shepard-Kegl, then a linguistics graduate student at MIT. (Years later, Judy and her husband James, established schools for the Deaf in Nicaragua, using SignWriting to teach deaf children to read and write.)



Summer, 1977
SignWriting Workshop, National Theatre of the Deaf

Troupe of Deaf actors learned to read and write signs for one week with Valerie Sutton in Connecticut. This was the first time the system was introduced to Deaf adults in the USA.



Summer, 1977
Goldilocks And The Three Bears, First Edition

Written in SignWriting by Betty Beekman, from the National Theater of the Deaf. Two other versions have been written. Second Edition. Third Edition.



Summer, 1977
Sutton Movement Shorthand; Writing Tool For Research

First paper on SignWriting presented in the USA by Valerie Sutton, in Chicago, Illinois to the National Symposium on Sign Language Research & Teaching.

July, 1978
SignWriting, Sutton Movement Shorthand, The Sign Language Key, Key 5
First SignWriting textbook, with 8-hours of video and audio instruction. It is an historic record of how the system was written in the 1970's. No longer in print.



Fall, 1979
NTID Technical Signs Manuals Begin
SignWriting symbols are used in a series of Technical Signs Manuals, produced at NTID in Rochester, New York, under the direction of Dr. Frank Caccamise. In 1979, Valerie Sutton was a full-time consultant to the project for six months, and is the author of the second manual, which teaches the SignWriting symbols. Over 10 manuals have since been published. The movement symbols of SignWriting are blended with life-like illustrations, showing technical signs used in different professions.



Fall, 1979
Sutton Speech Writing
This booklet described and illustrated Sutton's attempts at writing the detailed movements of the mouth, jaw and tongue while speaking. It was written while Sutton was a consultant at NTID. Audiologists and speech pathologists at NTID stimulated the project. Sutton analyzed detailed videos of speech production, and developed a system for notating the movements (see example below). Indirectly this was an influence on SignWriting, since some movements of the mouth are recorded when writing signed languages. This booklet is no longer in print.

October 26, 1980
A Way To Analyze American Sign Language & Any Other Sign Language Without Translation Into Any Spoken Language
Paper presented by Valerie Sutton to the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching in Boston, Massachusetts.


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