A Linguistic Comparison
Two Notation Systems for Signed Languages:
Stokoe Notation & Sutton SignWriting

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


The goal of this paper is to use concepts from linguistics in comparing two systems designed for writing signed languages. These are Stokoe Notation and Sutton SignWriting®, hereafter SN and SSW respectively.

Stokoe Notation (SN), was devised by linguist Dr. William Stokoe in 1960 and published in his groundbreaking book Sign Language Structure. Used by researchers ever since, SN is now the best known, although various groups of researchers have made changes to suit their particular needs and no standard version ever developed. Hence it cannot be considered a single system, but as a whole family of similar linguistic notation systems.

Sutton SignWriting (SSW), was invented by movement notator Valerie Sutton in 1974, when researchers at the University of Copenhagen asked her to adapt her invention Sutton DanceWriting to record the movements of signed languages. At the University, Sutton recorded the gestures of hearing people, comparing them with Deaf people using Danish Sign Language. Through this work, "SignWriting" evolved as part of an overall movement notation system, which also includes DanceWriting, SportsWriting, and MimeWriting. It too should be considered not in isolation but as part of a larger system, keeping in mind its interaction with these other parts of the complete Sutton Movement Writing System.


To give a context, this section will look at what it is that writing systems are expected to do, the different ways they do it, and ways of classifying them.The word "language" is used in many ways. We talk of the language of poetry or love, of body language, computer languages, the language of the bees, and the birds. Linguists have worked hard to determine exactly what makes human communication systems different from these other types. They have drawn up a list of characteristics that a system must have in order to be accepted as a human language. A main characteristic is double articulation, meaning that the structure of human language has several levels. The highest levels are composed of meaningful words and sentences, and the lowest levels are composed of small parts that have no meaning at all. However, these small parts can be put together in combinations that do have meaning. This same double articulation is seen in writing. (Coulmas 1984, 59).

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Describing Language