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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


Discussing how these scripts came about and how they work raises some profound questions about signing, writing, and even the nature of language itself. This next section attempts, if not to answer these questions, then at least to define some of the issues involved.

Taxonomic approaches like SN in general are unable to deal with spatial location (Stokoe 1987, 119). The number of possible relationships between the hand and the head, or any two articulators, is in theory infinite. A taxonomic approach must fail, as it can't provide an infinite number of symbols. This is not a problem just with writing systems, as our entire concept of language depends on a finite number of units. For instance, in all visual languages pronouns are pointing movements. Depending on where the subject is, there are theoretically an infinite number of places one can point to. Some hold that this removes them from the realm of language altogether (Liddel 2000, 23). Others argue that "a continuum of most linguistic to least linguistic is a useful concept" (Kyle & Woll 123). Either way, facing the complex questions of human perception that are involved may well result in a revised concept of language, and apparently a schematic approach can reflect this new concept while a more traditional approach can't. The pictorial nature of a method like SSW, as we have seen, effectively provides an infinite number of locations. One problem with SSW is that it focuses attention on aspects of language for which linguists are unable to provide answers.

Ferdinand de Saussure's 1916 Course in General Linguistics is "widely held to be the foundation of the modern subject" (Crystal 407). One of his key concepts involves the relationship between words and their meanings, and he "emphasized that the relationship between the two is arbitrary" (407) rather than "iconic" or picture-like. There is nothing about a cat, for example, that gives any indication as to the form of the word used to represent it.

Much of sign language is obviously not arbitrary, yet "Saussure insisted on this as one of the basic properties of language, and its incorporation into the dogma of scientific linguistics has posed a major problem for the linguistics of signed languages" (Armstrong 48). The conflict is more apparent than real: Saussure also stressed that arbitrariness is a matter of degree (Holdcraft 56). Still, Coulmas insists "the decisive step in the development of writing is phonetization; that is, the transition from pictorial icon to phonetic symbol" (1989, 33). Signed languages, however, present the possibility of being both iconic and phonetic at the same time, something that has not been considered previously.


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Describing Language