Hi! I'm Butch Zein, and this is my name sign:
to the Video Series Deaf Perspectives on SignWriting.
To begin, let me introduce you to my friends and
Hi! My name is Valerie Sutton and this is my name
Hi! My name is Lucinda O'Grady Batch, and this is
my name sign:
Hi! I'm Kevin Clark, and this is my name sign:
Our purpose for this video presentation is for us
to share with you the history of SignWriting...How
and when it first began...How it's been used and...Its
evolution over the years. Now Valerie, you invented
SignWriting back in 1974, right?
Yes. That' right. I invented SignWriting back in
1974. I developed a way to write dance movement
on paper, because I was a dancer, and that "movement
writing" system became Sutton Movement Writing.
And, we established back in 1974, the Center For
Sutton Movement Writing. That organization is a
non-profit organization and we collect funds through
Well, anyway...back in 1974 I was invited to go
to Denmark. That country invited me to go because
they wanted me to work with the Royal Danish Ballet
Company to teach them DanceWriting...how to write
their dances on paper. And I received a telephone
call from the University there. It was interesting.
They wanted a way to write sign language movement
on paper and through that work, I developed SignWriting.
Sutton Movement Writing is a system for writing
body movcment. It began with Sutton DanceWriting®
in 1974. DanceWriting uses a stick figure drawing
on a 5-lined staff:
In 1974, researchers at the University of Copenhagen,
in Denmark, asked Valerie Sutton to write the movements
of signed languages. This was the beginning of SignWriting.
Here is how the system looked in 1975:
In 1977, the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD),
in Connecticut, was the first group of Deaf adults
to learn SignWriting. Here is Deaf actor, Bernard
Bragg, from the NTD, with Valerie Sutton presenting
SignWriting. This video clip shows how SignWriting
looked in 1977.
Pictures captured from the 1986 video"Learn
Signing With SignWriting".
Looking back, I can remember I became interested
in SignWriting while I was working with the National
Theater of the Deaf. I was responsible for translating
the words into signs for the theatrical performances.
I found it very difficult to remember the signs
I had translated. I kept forgetting which sign I
had picked. Was it with my left hand, or maybe my
left arm was up here? Or it was down here? Maybe
I used my right hand in this position or whatever.
I needed a way to write down on paper the signs.
At first I tried to develop my own system to help
me in remembering. But it wasn't until Valerie came
out to teach us at the National Theater of the Deaf
in Connecticut back in 1978 that I really became
inspired. She shared with us the beginnings of her
system, and I have been a strong supporter of her
system ever since. Especially the part of writing
the signs down on paper. Signers need a way to read
and write their own language and many hearing people
need a way to put the signs down they are learning
in the classroom, so they can remember that sign
later on when they are studying at home. Well here,
let me show you what SignWriting looks like....
Over here we have this chart and here we have something
that maybe looks a little Greek to you. But if you
look more closely, you'll be able to see how this
picture looks exactly like a person's body.
This line represents the shoulders and going down
we have the line that represents the arm and going
out to the hand.
And now maybe you're noticing that little star right
over here. That means that there is a body contact
A lot of people have come up to me and said: "How
do you sign "hello"? Well, isn't that
obvious? You sign "hello"!
Hello! Now I will teach you how to read the sign
"hello". The facial circle shows the face
and we contact with a contact star. That shows the
area where you are contacting here. Then you see
the hand symbol and the shoulders. Then you see
a movement symbol which means "the direction
forward". It shows the direction forward.
Back in 1981, I heard from a woman named Nancy Woo,
who was involved with SignWriting. She is herself
a skilled "signwriter". I felt a little
concerned. I wondered if it were really necessary.
She and I met and she explained it was a nice way
to preserve ASL stories and poetry etc. I felt,
well, maybe it was a good idea.
So, I asked her to teach me. I learned and then
later, Valerie heard about me and contacted me and
asked if I would like to be involved to work as
a reporter for her SignWriter Newspaper.
I said fine! At first, I was the only one, but later
others became involved including Kevin Struxness,
Meriam Ina Schroeder, Susan Diamond and others also.
Back then, we were writing everything by hand. We
hadn't developed the computer program yet. It was
a lot of work, but a lot of fun too!
I would like to show you the history of what it
looked like when we were writing by hand. Here it
Writing SignWriting Publications By Hand
The SignWriter Newspaper was published quarterly
from 1981 to 1984. It was the first newspaper in
history to be written in the movements of signed
At that time, there was no way to type SignWriting.
Each issue of the newspaper was written by hand
with ink pens...
...or wax symbols were manually pressed on paper
with specially-designed transfer sheets
It took three months to write a 20-page issue by
hand. The first issue was published in the Fall,
1981. It was written by hand by Founding Editor,
Nancy Ellen Woo (now Nancy Romero).
Lucinda Struxness (now Lucinda Batch) was the first
Deaf reporter to write articles in American Sign
Language. A new profession began, called Sign Language
Journalism. Lucinda was joined by other newspaper
staff members, including Kevin Struxness, Dennis
Schemenauer, and illustrator Frank Allen Paul.
Working with Deaf reporters, Managing Editor Susan
Diamond Bucher edited each article in American Sign
Publisher Valerie Sutton, worked with Meriam Ina
Schroeder, Assistant Editor, on the newspaper's
layout and design.
Dennis Schemenauer worked with illustrator Frank
Allen Paul on a cartoon strip written in SignWriting.
Vicki Santillanes wrote a Dear Vicki Column, answering
questions from the Deaf Community.
History was made when articles were written in four
Danish Sign Language
American Sign Language
ceased in 1984 because it was too much work to write
the whole newspaper by hand. In 1986, just two years
later, the SignWriter Computer Program, programmed
by Richard Gleaves, changed history. Finally SignWriting
could be typed!
Publication was resumed in 1989, as the SignWriter
Newsletter, typed by computer. Since 1996, the SignWriter
Newsletter has been posted on the World Wide Web.
You can read the latest issue on the...
SignWriting Web Site
In the beginning, we used Full-Body SignWriting.
But now, that's no longer being used. So when and
how exactly did that change?
That's correct. Back around 1980 or so, we experimented.
You know, SignWriting didn't just happen automatically.
No. We had to develop it through experience. Deaf
people had to try to write and we experimented.
We had three different ways of writing at that time
to see which one was good.
First, we had "Full-Body SignWriting",
and that system is really for beginners, really,
because it is very visual and it shows the whole
body...and then we also had an experiment with another
writing system, the Handwriting. That threw out
the stick figure drawing and we only had the facial
expressions and the hand symbols and also the movement
symbols. And, you know, that was fascinating. We
just felt the Full-Body information wasn't necessary
if you knew sign language already. And then we had
a third experiment called the Shorthand. And that
was fun not perfect - but we continued to work and
work and work. And now I really think that Cindy
can explain better how the whole system changed.
Back in 1986, Valerie and I established the Deaf
Action Committee, or the DAC. There were some Deaf
people and some linguists who got involved and we
did research on how to improve our system.
For example, before we had the Full-Body writing
system. Well, really we had three. There was the
Full-Body, there was the Handwriting, and there
was the Shorthand. We decided the Full-Body wasn't
necessary so we threw that out, and we changed to
the Handwriting. And boy, we really improved that
system! Then later, our ultimate goal was the Shorthand.
Why? Because it seemed it would be smoother and
easier to write.
And then we had another experiment called Receptive
and Expressive. In the beginning we started with
Receptive but we decided it was better to use Expressive.
Why? Because we are not just "demonstrating"
signs. We are really writing "our" language.
So, it was important to use the expressive point
We also started to experiment with writing down
the page. You know how English is established reading
from left to right? Well, we changed and wrote down
the page. Why? Because we felt signs are involved
with space and location. It felt more natural for
us to write down the page. So, I would like to show
you what that looks like...
How SignWriting Changed
In 1982 there were three ways to write, all written
from the Receptive Viewpoint. Full-Body SignWriting
in 1982, placed stick figure drawings from left
to right on the page. The figure "faced"
Hand symbols, movement symbols and facial expressions
were written from left to right.
SignWriting Shorthand, in 1982, was really a stenography
system, written on special stenography tables. The
Shorthand was written at the speed of movement and
took special training. There were plans to establish
a new profession called Sign Language Stenography.
In 1997, Full-Body SignWriting was still being used
in Denmark. But changes were made. It is now written
from the Expressive Viewpoint.
In 1997, Stacked SignWriting was in use in 14 countries.
It began in 1986. Deaf people naturally "stack"
symbols in relationship to the center of the body.
The facial expressions are on the top with the hands
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Stacked SignWriting can be printed and read at very
In 1997, Cursive SignWriting started to evolve...The
Shorthand has changed from a stenography system
for professionals, into a cursive handwriting for
Using "Stacked SignWriting" seemed more
natural to me and easier to read and write in comparison
to the English order of writing from left to right.
Really, the Stacked style is easier to read and
write And I'm sure that once you use it, you too
will agree with me.
You know, I'll never forget how I learned about
SignWriting. It was through a friend of mine, Kathy
Say. She mentioned SignWriting. And at first I was
mystified, naturally, never having heard about it
before. She told me that it was a writing system
that can be used to document signed languages. This
piqued my interest. So, I went to the DAC meeting
The Deaf Action Committee meeting that she invited
me to attend. And right there, at that meeting I
learned so much, wow! I could see the many benefits
of using this system. It could be used in the Educational
setting, or used to preserve signed language, or
quite possibly be used to write ASL to one another,
eventually becoming the written language for ASL.
Clearly, many benefits could be derived from this
system. And, something else that I'll never forget
is how we - Cindy and I, while we were working on
the filming of a SignWriting Lesson yesterday -
Had a special guest show up by the name of Abdul
Aziz from Saudi Arabia. He was also interested in
SignWriting and wanted very much to learn all about
it. That truly was a special event - And I believe
- Yes, we did an interview with him - And so now,
you'll get to see it.
Voreck interviews Abdul Aziz Al-Obaid of Saudi Arabia
Hello, I'm Denny Voreck, and this is my name sign,
In today's interview, we will be discussing the
topic "the Deaf Community and Deaf Linguistics".
Now, our guest with us today is an individual by
the name of Abdul Aziz Al-Obaid, and this is his
name sign "Aziz". And he's with us from
Saudi Arabia. And this is the sign for Saudi Arabia:
Because it represents the type of headdress that
Our guest is sitting right here next to me. Ok,
I'd like to start off by asking your thoughts on
the American Deaf Community, Deaf Culture, and Deaf
I have done a lot - For 10 years I have not been
working, but instead I've traveled around the world.
From what I've seen - The Americans seem more fascinated
and absorbed with the Deaf Community, and with anything
having to pertain to the Deaf, especially with the
hot issues and discussions dealing with the intricacies
and complexities of the language of ASL. It's impressive
to see how the interest in all of this has persisted
even up till now, and including of late the issue
of SignWriting, of which I've come across this past
Well, welcome to America.Now, you mentioned SignWriting.
So, I'm interested in what your thoughts and feelings
are about this SignWriting Project?
Well, I think it's another sign or example of growth
of the "Deaf Identity". Similar to what
has occurred with other ethnic groups in America.
Thank you. All right, I would now like to ask your
opinion on how we can get SignWriting to be officially
recognized by the governments and deaf educational
institutions, and as a part of linguistics? Also,
what about in your educational institutions in Saudi
Well, I think it has to happen at the governmental
level. What I mean, is that, if the people involved
in politics and the rest of the American people
accept and view the Deaf as being like any other
"ethnic entity", then, and only then,
will it be recognized and accepted by the governments.
Now, with regards to the educational institutions
- I think you have to begin the change with the
politics in America. And then you'll be able to
bring about an acceptance among the various systems
of education in America.
Ok, so when SignWriting is finally accepted and
recognized by the government...do you envision SignWriting
beginning to blossom and flourish and succeed to
the extent, that perhaps by the year 2000, it will
be used in the various institutions all-over and
Well, I think for any idea to take root, you have
to start with the place or community from which
it is stemming. Once you have it growing and blossoming
there, then you can begin to have it spread and
flourish throughout the rest of the nation.
So when SignWriting does grow and proliferate through
literature and as a writing system, what similarities
would then take place, such as what happened with
your language, the Arabic language? Would you please
expound to what has happened historically with Arabic.
Sure. Really what has happened historically with
SignWriting is pretty comparable to what the Arabic
language has experienced over the years to become
a very strong and enduring language. You see, in
the beginning, the Arabic language started off as
a spoken language only, without having a written
component to it. Quite similar to ASL today, where
it is a manual-visual language without a written
form. Once a written form was established, then
Arabic was able to become a truly rich and fruitful
language. The situation today is no less similar
for the Deaf. Where their language is spoken or
communicated only through signing, it doesn't have
a written form as of yet. So in order for the language
of the Deaf to truly become a rich and prosperous
language it needs the written form.
You make a good point there. I can't argue with
that. So now I would like to ask you, how do you
foresee SignWriting being transmitted? Through the
vehicle of huge bound volumes, or through the use
of computers, via print or electronically? Exactly
what do you envision happening with SignWriting
in the future?
Well, I envision that in the future it will reach
its highest potential indeed. SignWriting will experience
tremendous growth and popularity in its usage. Just
like for the hearing peoples in England and in France,
both populations have very strong and powerful organizations
because in France, they have the spoken French,
and they have the dictionaries for the written French,
and the literature etc. And in England they have
the same thing for the same reasons. So in my opinion
I foresee that the same powerful growth will happen
for the Deaf worldwide through the popularity and
use of SignWriting.
Thank you very much for your thoughts about this.
For your information, there is already an organization
established for SignWriting. It is the Deaf Action
Committee, or the DAC for short, and it has been
in existence since 1984. So we want to thank you
for interviewing with us, and we really appreciate
you being here today!
you were relating your experiences with SignWriting,
I realized that my experience was quite similar
to yours. I recall that the first time I was introduced
to SignWriting, I too found it somewhat strange
and absurd. And then Donald Baer, who used to work
at the Salk Institute at the same time I was working
there, told me that it worked. But I was a little
skeptical, because I had seen several systems out
there, and I really didn't like them. But now he
said this one works.
So I wanted to see this for myself. I went to the
same meeting that you went to, and it was there
that I saw the astounding potential. It is perfectly
compatible to any signed language.So after that,
I felt I could back this system up. Really, this
was the first time I support any sign notation system.
So I ended up getting involved, and have been working
with it ever since.
My reaction was just like yours in the beginning.
I was resistant. But now, I am totally involved
and taken by it. And I hope that others will feel
the same way and open their minds and really get
their feet wet...really become emmersed with SignWriting.
I remember at the same time I was working with Karen
van Hoek and Richard Gleaves, who is the computer
programming specialist. Then there was Kathy Say,
Bonita Ewan Thorn and myself...the three of us.
I will never forget, during one summer, we were
ready to work with the computer program, whereas
before we had to write everything by hand. So now,
we had the computer system ready. We were one of
the first to actually use this program. So we spent
time getting used to it and making some adjustments.
But then, during the summer, we had some scheduling
conflicts, so we ended up renting one laptop computer.
So we had to take turns using it with each other,
to enter signs in the dictionary. In the beginning,
it was a small dictionary, but after we took turns
using it every week throughout the summer, we finally
ended up with some 3000 signs. And that was really
The dictionary will be on the internet. We are in
the process of setting that up. So that will mean
people will be able to access the information online,
downloading the signs they would like into computer
files. So.. wow! Talking about a new era in the
computer world! And we will be the first to be there.
can read more
Deaf opinions on SignWriting
on the World Wide Web.
Come visit the SignWritingSite at: