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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


Having defined the scripts themselves and some terms used to discuss them, this section will give a descriptive comparison of how they handle the various parameters. Our current understanding of Signing requires five parameters to describe any Sign, and we will look at each one in turn. They are:







1. Movement
A basic theoretical choice must be made in order to show movement. One can represent the beginning position and the movement, show the beginning and end positions only, or show all three. SN has made the first choice while keeping the option of showing the end position if desired. Some signs show it and some don't, with the "spelling" being up to the writer.

SSW also allows all three choices, and as more and more people are reading and writing literature written in SSW, it is becoming evident that all three choices are needed at times. About 10% of SSW characters write both beginning and end position as well as movement. The majority of characters have only a beginning position and movement. However around 5% drop the beginning position and keep the movement symbol and ending position. Writing both positions is always an option in SSW, and is
useful for beginning readers, or for unfamiliar signs.

At first glance these two scripts seem totally different, yet after allowing for the differing theoretical assumptions, they are surprisingly similar. Both use a set of arbitrary symbols for internal movement and both use arrows to show path movement, with different types of arrows for different directions. SN classifies all movement into 24 types, with a special symbol for each. Although SSW has fewer actual movement symbols, its freer spatial arrangement allows innumerable combinations, and thus considerably more detail.

For example, axial and circular movement, which SN calls rotary, includes flexing the wrist or elbow or rotating the arm. (Figure 6) While SN requires the use of five more movement symbols, SSW shows these with combinations of the basic movement arrows.

Figure 6: Rotary Motion (Axial Motion)
The ASL sign for "don't know."

Stokoe Notation

Sutton SignWriting

Arrows over head show a sideways head shake. A flat hand rotates as it moves out.


SN uses only one symbol, "circular," for any movement that is not straight. Anything more than a simple curve has to be treated rather digitally as moving up, then out, then down; whereas SSW arrows show curves and even loops (figure7).

Figure 7: Curved Motion (Looping Motion)
The ASL sign for "snake."

Stokoe Notation

Bent V moves away with
Circular motion.

Sutton SignWriting

Notice the looping sideways
movement arrow.

A SSW arrow consolidates a great deal of information in one symbol; the stem doubles for vertical movement, and the arrowhead is different for right, left, or both hands. Writing the nearer part of the arrow thicker makes use of perspective to show motion toward or away from the Signer (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Movement Away From Signer
The ASL sign for "enter."

Stokoe Notation

Movement away from signer, stacked, palm down, open palms.

Sutton SignWriting

Tapered arrow curved movement down and away from signer.


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Describing Language