History of SignWriting

Chapter 7
How SignWriting Has Changed
The Evolution of Writing Styles

Valerie Sutton :-)



History shows that writing systems tend to "evolve" with use. It takes time for experimentation. And SignWriting is no exception.

I remember when I went to school in the 1950's, it seemed to me that reading and writing English "magically appeared". ABC was taken for granted. Writing English "was established". There were rules, and you were not allowed to break them. I never considered saying to my teacher: "This spelling doesn't make sense so let's change the rules!"

But, of course, when I was a little girl I didn't realize that reading and writing English took centuries to develop. Not only did the alphabetic characters change over hundreds of years, but spellings were not standardized for a long time either. People spelled differently because there were no rules in the beginning. English writers couldn't predict back in the Middle Ages, what written English would look like in 1998!

That is why all of us, who are working with the development of SignWriting, are committed to the idea that SignWriting "will evolve" with use. We are trying to find a balance between being flexible towards changes that seem to happen naturally, and also providing structure for students learning to read and write. It is a fascinating process and we all feel privileged to be a part of it!

The purpose of this article is to show how SignWriting changed from 1974 to the present.

Early Origins
SignWriting originally stemmed from DanceWriting in 1974.
DanceWriting places a "stick figure drawing" on a five-lined staff:

SignWriting 1974-1980
Detailed SignWriting

Below is an example of how SignWriting looked from 1974 to around 1980. You can see it came from DanceWriting. Instead of a five-lined staff, there was a three-lined staff for the upper body:

This was called "Detailed SignWriting" and its goal was to write every detail possible. It was usually transcribed from videotape for research purposes.

Signs were written from left to right, facing the reader (receptive viewpoint). The Shoulder Line was placed on the center line of the staff. Facial contact was written to the left of the stick figure. Each sign was separated by a vertical line. A thick vertical line began and ended each sentence. Tiny numbers were used to show which fingers were projecting. In the diagram above, the number 2 represents "the index finger".

The above sentence is written in Danish Sign Language. It can be translated as "Det er far." in Danish, which means "It is father." in English.

SignWriting 1980-1986
Three Ways To Write

By 1982, SignWriting was easier to use, and people could choose between three syles of writing. All three styles were written receptively, facing the reader. All were written from left to right.

1. Full-Body SignWriting in the 1980's

stemmed from "Detailed SignWriting" of the late 1970's, but the three-lined staff was discarded. Who needed those unnecessary lines?!! And no more tiny numbers for fingers. Each handshape had a special "look". Readers memorized "the shape" of each handshape.

The example below is written in Danish Sign Language. The Danish gloss is "gide-ikke male hus". The English gloss would be "don't feel-like paint house.":

2. SignWriting Handwriting in the 1980's

was the forerunner to Stacked SignWriting in the 1990's, but we didn't know that back then! It was an "experiment". The stick figure was discarded. Hand symbols, movement symbols and facial expressions were written from left to right. The stick figure drawing was only used occasionally for special torso movements or contact with the hips or shoulders:


3. SignWriting Shorthand in the 1980's

was really a stenography system, written on special stenography tables. It was written at the speed of movement and took special training. There were plans to establish a new profession called "Sign Language Stenography".

SignWriting 1986-1996
Writing Became Expressive and Stacked

The Expressive Evolution
began in 1984, when two Deaf staff members, Lucinda O'Grady Batch and Meriam Ina Schroeder, made it known that they wanted to write SignWriting expressively. Their feelings were so strong they could not be ignored. "After all", they both pointed out, "we are not demonstrating individual signs on videotape, we are expressing our own language from our own perspective. We see our own hands when we write, not someone else's." They were correct. But it was an adjustment, because every textbook, every document published in SignWriting for over ten years had been written receptively. Imagine all of the work and money to change every book and every article written in SignWriting! It was truly overwhelming. The change took more than four years to complete. And yet, it was worth the decision to do it! What was really impressive was how fast other countries agreed and changed their own textbooks. Denmark, for example, jumped at the chance to write expressively and rewrote their textbooks immediately. The response was so strong in favor of expressive writing by skilled SignWriters that we have never regretted the switch.

The Stacked Evolution
began around 1986. It became clear that more and more Deaf people were choosing the Handwriting, but instead of writing the symbols in a line from left to right, they were naturally stacking the symbols to look like the human body. Facial expressions were placed on top, with the hands and movement symbols underneath. Stacking "mimics" the way signs look in real life. The late Dennis Schemenauer, another native signer and Deaf staff member, was a help on this issue. He expressed hope that we would make "stacking" symbols "official" and I never forgot his advice. "Stacked SignWriting" slowly started to evolve in the late 1980's. By 1990 it was the DAC's published standard, but the stacking was only within each sign. Each sign was like a little "stacked unit". The units were then placed from left to right on the page.

Here is an example of Stacked SignWriting, written in 1991 by Deaf staff member Donald Baer. Notice that the signs are written expressively, from the writer's perspective. The hand symbols are beneath the facial expressions, so that each sign is like a little "stacked unit":

SignWriting 1996 - 1997
Writing Went South :-)

The Vertical Evolution
began around 1994. Deaf staff members Lucinda O'Grady Batch, George 'Butch' Zein, Kathy Say, Bonita Ewan and Kevin Clark - all expressed interest in writing down the page in columns. It was something we "talked about", but I must give Lucinda Batch credit for expressing it to me on a regular basis. She gave me the necessary "shove" to take the courage and make it "official". So...in January, 1997, I officially announced that we were switching over to writing vertically in all of our DAC publications. Once again, I was amazed how quickly others agreed and decided to accept the change. Antonio Carlos da Rocha Costa was the first to publish SignWriting written vertically in the foreword to the Brazilian children's story "Uma Menina Chamada Kauana" which was posted in January, 1997.

Of course it is a major change to write vertically, and not everyone has become used to it yet. Lots of groups continue to write from left to right, and that is fine (smile). Change cannot take place immediately. That is why it is called "evolution", not "revolution"!

You can find vertical writing all over this web site. To see examples, go to:

"Cinderella, Part One"
Darline Clark, November 1997

"Humpty Dumpty"
Darline Clark & Dave Gunsauls
September 1997

"Goldilocks and the Three Bears"
Darline Clark, April 1997

SignWriting 1997 - present
Writing By Hand Becomes Cursive

The Cursive Evolution
Are you one of those who have wondered - "Isn't there a fast way to write by hand?" Well...you are not alone! That is a natural question. Computers have solved the "publishing" issues. But what about a cursive handwriting for SignWriting for daily use?

Well...in 1997, Cursive SignWriting began to evolve. It stems from the old SignWriting Shorthand, which is slowly changing from a "stenography system" for professionals, into a "cursive handwriting" for daily use. I hope to write a manual called "Cursive SignWriting" in 1998 or 1999. Of course, just as with writing English, one must learn to "print block letters" before one learns to write cursively. So the Cursive SignWriting manual will be useful for skilled writers.

Here is what Cursive SignWriting looked like in July, 1997:

Different Applications, Different Writing Choices
One last interesting note. There are some who continue to choose to write with the old styles of writing. And that is fine! For all we know, the older ways of writing may be useful for generations to come. The clearest example of this is "Full-Body SignWriting", which continues to be used in Denmark, and is making a comeback in Norway.

The example below shows Full-Body SignWriting used in Denmark. This excerpt is taken from the Danish textbook "Tegnskrift" by Karen Albertsen, Bente Sparrevohn and Annegrethe Pedersen, published in 1989. As you can see, small changes were made to the writing system. There is always a head on the stick figure, whether there is a facial expression or not. The Shoulder Line is a thin line, not a thick line. The stick figure is written from the expressive viewpoint:

Generally it seems to be hearing educators who find the stick figure useful for beginning students, especially hearing parents of Deaf children. I understand there are several groups of hearing parents learning SignWriting in Scandinavia. I have heard that both Denmark and Norway have such classes available. And apparently some of those groups prefer Full-Body SignWriting.

Interestingly enough, American Deaf DAC staff members feel strongly that the stick figure is not necessary. Of course, they are Deaf adults who are skilled in SignWriting, a very rare group indeed. Most of the changes that have taken place in the past 24 years have come from Deaf adults skilled in SignWriting.

From my personal perspective, it feels good to know that SignWriting has been useful, no matter which style of writing is preferred. I feel quite excited each time I hear of a new application for SignWriting. I want to thank all of you for trying to write signs. I know experimenting can be frustrating at times. But your efforts are what make the writing system improve. Please keep me informed of new developments. I can add your stories to our history :-)

All good wishes -

Valerie Sutton
January 5th, 1998
La Jolla, California


History of SignWriting
1974 - 2004

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