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

Joe Martin
Western Washington University


William Stokoe's proof that ASL was a true human language ranks among the great intellectual achievements of all time. The resulting separation of language from speech has solved one of history's great philosophical problems, and forced us to revise our most fundamental ideas. No longer can language be defined in terms of sounds, and time-honored concepts like arbitrariness and linearity have taken on new roles. We are well past the time when it is acceptable to state that "talking =thinking = being human" (Leiberman 4), or that "the primary defining feature of writing is the representation of speech" (DeFrancis 248). We are approaching the point where no one can afford to remain ignorant of these advances and still call themselves linguists. The future calls upon us to look far outside the traditional domain of linguistic study and to examine methods previously seen as having no bearing on the science.

These two scripts well illustrate this. Stokoe developed his notation at a time when a signed language was literally unimaginable, and of necessity he built on existing linguistic theory. He published his work in 1960 knowing it was incomplete and leaving for others the task of developing his new script into a viable writing system. That others have not done so seems due precisely to its being based on traditional concepts. Attempts to force the new data to conform with traditional assumptions have led to failure, while on the other hand SSW has pursued a course independent of these assumptions, and this has allowed it to work.

SSW is working. Today schools are using it, as in Nicaragua (Brooks D-2), research establishments are adopting it, as has California's Salk Institute after finding other systems inadequate (Clark 6), and it is being used in regular correspondence and publications (Sutton 1997b, 3).

Just as new discoveries in physics forced physicists to expand their theoretical concepts to encompass Relativity, linguists are now being forced to expand their models to encompass senses other than speech. These new notations for human language serve both to illustrate the necessity of this and as tools for its accomplishment.

Joe Martin
February 1, 2000
Western Washington University


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Describing Language