Writing Signed Languages
In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System

Amy Rosenberg
B.A., University of Virginia, 1995

Master's Degree Thesis
University of Kansas
Department of Linguistics, 1999

Submitted to the Department of Linguistics and the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Kansas
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts.


 Abstract & Introduction

Chapter 1
Defining a Writing System
The History of Writing

Chapter 2
What System Is Best?
The Effects of Writing
The Daily Uses of Writing

Chapter 3
The Deaf Community

Chapter 4
The Language:
American Sign Language

Chapter 5, Part 1
Writing ASL in SignWriting

Chapter 5, Part 2
SignWriting Specifics
Other Writing Systems

Chapter 6
The Effects of Writing ASL
The Future of Writing & the Deaf Community
SignWriting Supporters

 Summary & Bibliography

Appendix A

Appendix B
Stokoe Notation 

Appendix C
A Handshape Inventory

Appendix D & E
SignWriting Handshapes
SignWriting Shorthand

Appendix F
41 Basic Handshapes

Appendix G
Sign-Symbol Sequence

This thesis addresses the issues surrounding the Deaf community, its language, and the writing system proposed for recording its language. The effects of the writing system on its users are reviewed. A brief history of written language is presented in light of further empowering a language community which has no officially established writing system. This thesis will consider the Deaf community; a unique cultural group in that it is bound by a common language, and yet it has not adopted a standardized writing system. We will examine the characteristics of this community and its language, and we will describe attempts to create a writing system. We will present a description of a movement, based in California, which is dedicated to establishing SignWriting as the written form of American Sign Language. Success for this writing system is likely, as evidenced by its use in the deaf communities of many countries.


I would like to thank Dr. Akira Yamamoto, my advisor, for working diligently to refine this thesis. I would like to thank Dr. Henderson and Dr. Watkins for serving on my committee and providing me with support and insight. I thank the Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting and all of those involved with SignWriting for inspiring this thesis.

Part I: Writing

Those who feel they are part of the Deaf community may not share a common territory. They may be of different faiths. There is no Deaf cuisine. And, most of those who belong to the Deaf community were not born into it, but chose it at various ages. So, what makes this a distinct culture, with the rules and norms accepted by its members? It is their language: American Sign Language (ASL). With as much variation as the membership employing it, this language defines a culture. It is the language of primary use at an accredited University in the nation's capital. In the past two decades, the Deaf community has been struggling for recognition and equal rights as demonstrated by the Deaf President Now demonstration in 1988 at Gallaudet University and sparking the nationwide Deaf Pride movement. Deaf schools have fought for the right to teach in ASL. Deaf people want their culture and language recognized as having as much importance as American culture and spoken English. It is, therefore, a significant fact that American Sign Language has no established writing system, and one that must change in our highly literate context.

It has been said, in regard to the difference between a language and a dialect, that a language is a dialect with an army. This idea implies that, while almost all humans speak (or sign), recognizing their mode of communication as language confers prestige, while calling it a dialect suggests that their society is unimportant. Furthermore, existing in a written form may be associated with the prestige of a language. "Standard languages often are WRITTEN languages" (Hock and Joseph 1996: 335). All cultures recognized as powerful and relevant to modern society speak and write their languages. Even when literacy rates are unimpressive, cultures of import in world discourse have access to documents and literature.

It is certain that some societies are strictly oral, and others make use of the official written code to record. For example, countries in which a variety of vastly different "dialects" of Arabic are spoken, mainly write standard Arabic, no matter how different it is from their spoken Arabic. The linguistic situation facing the American Deaf community differs in two ways. Deaf people have different levels of access to English, the language in which they are currently writing, but Deaf culture completely centers around unwritten American Sign Language, so access to writing it has great implications. We can also establish the relationship between the level of literacy a culture possesses and the external perception of that culture. This thesis considers the language and culture of a small but proud population, and addresses the positive effects that establishing a standard writing system for its language would have.

The American Deaf community takes pride in using a unique language to communicate, storytell, create poetry etc., but most of the members of this community write in English. If all members of this culture were sufficiently bilingual and literate in English, there might be no reason to question their mode of literacy. Many core members of the Deaf community have limited skills in English because of the manner in which most deaf people have been educated in the United States. Whether a deaf child was placed in school with hearing children or sent to a school for the deaf, the focus was often on learning to speak English and lipread; signing was frowned upon. This has been the case since the International Congress of Educators of the Deaf conference held in Milan in 1880. It was decided that deaf schools should focus on oralism...*Footnote 1...and that Sign should be prohibited in schools (Sacks 1990: 27). This created an extremely poor educational setting. Without having access to sound, and without the help of Sign, learning English through writing and lipreading was not easily accomplished and was almost never completely successful. (Sacks 1990, Conrad 1979).

*Footnote 1: An educational theory focused on the goal of teaching a deaf child to speak English without the use of signs or gestures.

The core of this community is its separate linguistic status. American Sign Language (ASL) is the heart and soul of this culture. Without a signed language there would simply be no Deaf community, so why not write ASL?

In the following pages I will consider this question in detail. Chapter 1 will discuss what writing is and its history. Chapter 2 will compare various writing systems and will address the influence they have on the languages they are used for as well as the people who employ them. Chapter 3 presents the Deaf community and its culture. Chapter 4 details ASL as a full linguistic entity. Chapter 5 discusses writing ASL in SignWriting and chapter 6 considers the effects of writing ASL. This thesis asserts that signers need a writing system which they may uniformly utilize. It establishes the case for pervasively adopting SignWriting as the system of choice for the American Deaf community.

...back to Table of Contents....
Introduction Chapter 5, Part 1 Appendix B
Chapter 1 Chapter 5, Part 2 Appendix C
Chapter 2 Chapter 6 Appendix D & E
Chapter 3 Summary & Bibliography Appendix F
Chapter 4 Appendix A Appendix G

Write to the author...

Amy Rosenberg