Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 1

Why do people read and write spoken languages?

Whatever the answer is to that question, the answers are the same for writing signed languages. The only difference is that we are writing a series of languages that use movement, instead of sound. But otherwise the issues are the same.

There are some who argue that signed languages do not need to be written! No language has to be written - but when we do, we all are richer for it.

SignWriting was not designed to replace any language or writing system. It was developed to provide a written form for hundreds of languages that did not have any written form before. And some Deaf people and signers benefit from writing their native Sign Language, which is very different than any spoken language.

Reading and writing makes it easier to learn other languages, it preserves the history and traditions of the culture, and it has a profound influence on the rest of the world. When a language is written, it places it on an equal footing with other written languages, which brings the language attention and respect. Through this process, those who use the language learn about their own culture. They see themselves in a new positive light.

And this is true for Deaf people who use a Sign Language too. Some are born into Deaf families that use a Sign Language at home. Learning to read and write their native language is a help to them, and can give them a feeling of pride.


Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 2

SignWriting is not a philosophy. It is simply a way to read and write signs.

Reading and writing has many applications in life - It is up to the writers to make their decisions, as to how they want to apply it.

So SignWriting is used differently in 18 countries. Some groups use it for research - for example - a research project at Salk Institute is using SignWriting to record classifiers, because English gloss is not adequate enough. Other groups use it in Deaf Education, such as the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project and the Concordia School For Deaf Children in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And some teachers use SignWriting in classes to record signs for their hearing students in vocabulary lists, such as the classes for parents of deaf children, in Denmark and Norway.

The SignWriting Literacy Project, which is free to schools using American Sign Language (ASL), donates Sign Language Literature to classrooms with Deaf students. Some teachers use the SignWriting materials to teach ASL, and others use them to teach English. In other words, SignWriting can be applied differently in each classroom, depending on the teacher.

Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 3

...regarding this question....

"What is the purpose of translating the relatively universal standard of using written letters, words, and sentences to communicate an idea or thought, into a completely new format / language?"

May 27, 2001
William J. "Chip" McGruder answered:

To me, this is the key for why SignWriting came into existence. First, the so-called universal standard of using written letters does not use the same written letters.  There are various alphabets with no relationship to each other; some alphabets are in reality syllabaries; some languages use ideograms; and others use letters which don't represent the sounds of the language at all well.

Second, it is possible to use a translation of what the Sign Language sentence is; however, as in all translations, this is nowhere near perfect.   One will always lose something in the translation.  On the other hand, if one grows up using SignWriting to record on paper his or her native Sign Language, then he or she will have a record which can be read with no loss of understanding.

Third, SignWriting makes it possible to compare different Sign Languages. Consider for a moment your assertion about "universal standard of using written letters."  If one were to record a sentence originally formed in American Sign Language, one would then, presumably, record that in written English.  The next step, if you were to have this read by someone in, say, Oman, would be to translate the English sentence into Arabic. Then finally, the Omani Signer would have to read that Arabic sentence and consider what he or she believed the translation - provided on the spot - would be in Arabic (or Omani) Sign Language.  Thus you have three translations, all involving some loss of meaning due to the nature of translation.  Using SignWriting, which records the actual movements made by the original Signer, the individual at the Omani end of the above sequence would know what movements the original Signer had made.

This leads to my fourth point.  One could very well have a parallel dictionary showing, say, American Sign Language on one side and the accepted translations into Arabic Sign Language on the other. Thus, a competent translator would only have to parse one, not three, translations to convey the message.

Fifth, this sequence can also assist the Deaf in learning the local written language.  Since the local written languages are those used to record the spoken language, this does not convey accurately the knowledge needed at the outset of learning to write.  There is just no comparison between the written word and the language known by the Deaf equivalent to the comparison of the written word to the language known by the hearing individual.  It's just not possible to "sound out" the word in English if one is not able to hear English.

Sixth, for those of us who do hear (I'm not Deaf), I supplement my notecards for when I have to give training, with SignWriting showing what I should do with my hands to make a consistent point.  This way I don't have to use two cards for the same instant in the speech.

Lastly, I want to reiterate Valerie's point about respect for a language.   Sequoyah of the Cherokee Tribe in the United States recognized that, in the modern world (over a 100 years ago), a language had to have a written form.  He considered that the Europeans' power was manifest in their writing.   Sequoyah then invented one for his people.  Since he didn't know how to read or write English, his syllabary uses some of the Roman letters but for different sounds, and some symbols he just made up.  The Sequoyah Syllabary was accepted by the Cherokee and is still in use today to record that language.  Many hearing people have said that a language with no written form isn't a language.  Of course that's patently false, but it does point to the perception held by many that Sign Language isn't really a language.

Having its own written form, Sign Languages around the world can come out of the dark, so to speak, and be studied in the same manner that other languages are. In my opinion, the written form of SignWriting itself may even entice some people into learning the local Sign Language and thus enhance acceptance of both the Sign Language and those who use it.

William J. "Chip" McGruder
Marina, California, USA



Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 4

...regarding this question....

"What is the purpose of translating the relatively universal standard of using written letters, words, and sentences to communicate an idea or thought, into a completely new format / language?"

May 28, 2001
Charles Butler answered:

"Relatively universal standard of writing spoken languages" is an excellent phrase.

For "written languages", at least 12 writing systems that I am aware of (not including signed languages) are used as everyday writing (newspapers for wide distribution for example):

Hebrew - Hebrew alphabet - one ancestor of Roman alphabet, script is not known to many non-Jews. Used to write Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish.

Arabic script - Used every day by 1/6 of the world's population. The rules for writing it are arcane, a word, if written in the Roman alphabet letter for letter, would look mispelled.

Amharic script - Used by Ethiopians, based on Hebrew script, syllabary.

Chinese script - Used by most Chinese, this is NOT an alphabet, but a "character" system which is in fact, writing ancient sign language into a form used to translate 22 mutually unintelligible spoken languages of China into a single written language.

Japanese - syllabary, based on the "appearance" of Chinese script.

Roman alphabet - used, in some way, with some variants, for many of the nations of Europe and the Romance languages throughout the world. Based on Greek, Hebrew, and other ancient alphabets.

Cyrillic script - based on Greek, used by all of the Russian and former Russian republics.

Shorthand - a reduced form of writing "sounded languages" like English. Requires special training but is quick to write and interpret.

Sanskrit - One of three alphabets in daily use in India, three thousand year history. India has to have computer systems that can interpret Roman, Sanskrit, and Arabic scripts.

Greek - used by Greek-speaking peoples the world over.

Cherokee - developed for everyday use by Sequoyah, based on both Roman letters and ancient Cherokee writing.

Korean - based on the shape of sounds in the mouth, Korean words "look" like characters from Chinese, but are in fact readable phonetically.

For signed languages, we are indeed fortunate to have one system that can write all of them.

Charles Butler



Why Write Sign Language?
Answer Part 5

Another reason for having a written Sign Language.

- The Hearing/Listening members of Deaf families.

Imagine, if you will, a parent, having a Deaf child, but not able to read the signs of sign language because they move so rapidly. If they are written down, they are the same signs, the same grammar, but, THEY DON'T MOVE. They can be reviewed, looked over, studied, and pondered, and questions can be asked about them.

I could imagine, years hence, a person fluent in written ASL who cannot read a single word of it on a person's hands, but is completely fluent in the written language.

Charles Butler




No. SignWriting is not a language. It can be compared to an "alphabet". Alphabets are not languages themselves. They are tools used to record languages that already exist.

Signed and spoken languages were not written languages from the beginning. They were "spoken" or "signed" for centuries without a written form.

A, B and C have no meaning by themselves. It took time to develop a good way to read and write the sounds of spoken languages using A, B and C. It took centuries before reading and writing spoken languages was taught in schools.

In the same way, the SignWriting symbols have no meaning by themselves. SignWriting is a set of visually-designed symbols used to record the movements of any signed language. SignWriting records exactly how people sign, without changing the signed language being recorded.

Who knows? Maybe it won't take centuries before reading and writing signs is taught in schools for the Deaf! That may be true partly because of the advent of computers. Computers seem to be "speeding up" the process.


Please feel free to write if you have questions.

Valerie Sutton


Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting
Center For Sutton Movement Writing
an educational nonprofit organization
P.O. Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA

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