SignWriting® and
American Sign Language

Paper written for a course in
ASL Linguistics at
Delaware Technical and Community College

December 2, 1997

Bill Collins

 "SignWriting does not change American Sign Language (ASL). It is simply a set of visually designed symbols that records how people sign. SignWriting captures on paper the visual subtleties of any signed language in the world, because it records body movement. I developed SignWriting out of respect and awe for the beauty and sophistication of all signed languages. I am not a linguist, but I have a tremendous love for learning languages...Because I respect ASL, I want to write it and preserve it."

Valerie Sutton, creator of SignWriting

Background of SignWriting

The origins of the SignWriting system are actually found in choreography notation. In 1966, Valerie Sutton, then 15, invented a stick figure notation system to record the ballet steps she was learning as part of her professional ballet training. After moving to Denmark to train with the Royal Danish Ballet, she improved her movement notation system and by 1974 was teaching DanceWriting as part of formal training for Royal Danish Ballet dancers. A newspaper article about DanceWriting captured the attention of sign language researcher Lars von der Lieth at the University of Copenhagen. He asked Sutton to record sign language movements from videotapes that his team of researchers had made of Danish signers. This task was the beginning of SignWriting.

In 1975, Sutton returned to the United States to teach in the dance department at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where for ten years, DanceWriting was a required part of the curriculum. During this time, she also continued to improve SignWriting, which attracted the attention of Deaf and hearing people in various spheres. In 1977, for example, Dr. Judy Shepard-Kegl, then a linguistics graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), arranged the first SignWriting workshop in the U.S., which was presented at M.I.T. to the New England Sign Language Society (NESLS). That same year, members of the National Theater for the Deaf became the first Deaf adults to learn SignWriting, and Sutton presented her first paper on SignWriting to the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching, a presentation attended by Dr. William Stokoe.

For a six-month period in 1979, Sutton served as a consultant at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, working with Dr. Frank Cacamise and his team to produce a number of booklets in the Technical Signs Manuals series. Each booklet is devoted to the specialized signs of a particular discipline: mathematics, legal, social work, theater, religion, etc. These booklets, published over a number of years and still in print, use SignWriting symbols to illustrate signs. She also wrote an accompanying manual that explains the symbols, and worked with audiologists at NTID to devise a Speech Writing system to record mouth movements. Some of these symbols were later incorporated into SignWriting to depict nonmanual signals produced with the mouth when signing.

For almost three years, beginning in 1981, Sutton was involved in producing a quarterly newspaper (12 to 24 pages) called "The SignWriter Newspaper." Articles appeared in both English and SignWriting, which at that time had to be laboriously written by hand. Copies of the paper were distributed free to Deaf people in 41 countries. Because the symbols of SignWriting depict movement rather than any specific sign, they can be used to portray any signed language. This allowed the newspaper to sometimes include articles in Danish Sign Language (DSL) as well as ASL. Though there was resistance among both Deaf and hearing people to the idea of a "written" sign language, most of the staff were Deaf, and their experience and input contributed significantly to the continuing evolution of the system. Sutton believes the newspaper was mainly important because it sparked debate about the whole idea of sign language literacy, and because it led to the ultimate development of software for writing signs. Due to the length of time required to generate each issue, publication of the newspaper was discontinued in 1984. Two years later, the first version of the SignWriter Computer Program was created, making it possible to type symbols on a keyboard. The newspaper resumed publication by the Deaf Action Committee as a shorter, semi-annual SignWriter Newsletter in 1989 and was mailed to 7,000 people. Since 1996, the newsletter has been posted on the Web rather than on printed on paper.

The Deaf Action Committee (DAC)

The Deaf Action Committee is sponsored by the Center For Sutton Movement Writing, Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt organization founded by Sutton in 1974. The DAC publishes SignWriting books, dictionaries, videos, and software and conducts demonstrations, workshops, and training sessions. SignWriting is a registered trademark of the Center For Sutton Movement Writing, but produces no royalties for the inventor.

Though the creator of the SignWriting system is hearing, the five-person DAC staff includes only one hearing person, Richard Gleaves, the designer and programmer of the SignWriter Computer Program. The Deaf staff members have interesting resumes; most have linguistic backgrounds. Their presence on the DAC lends additional credibility to SignWriting, and their influence on the continued development of the system is freely acknowledged by Sutton:
· Lucinda O'Grady Batch-born Deaf into an all-Deaf family; residential school for the Deaf in New Jersey; worked full-time at the Salk Institute in signed language research; teaches ASL.
· Darline Clark-born Deaf into an all-Deaf family; Missouri School for the Deaf; Gallaudet graduate; works at University of San Diego as ASL Research Assistant to Dr. Carol Padden in the Research Program in Language & Literacy; teaches ASL.
· Kevin Clark-born Deaf into an all-Deaf family; Missouri School for the Deaf; Gallaudet graduate; works in research for Ursula Bellugi at the Salk Institute.
· David Gunsauls-California School for the Deaf at Riverside; attended NTID.

SignWriting Products and Projects

In addition to the SignWriter Newsletter, the DAC has produced illustrated booklets of children's stories (Goldilocks, Humpty Dumpty, and Cinderella) written in SignWriting and English. There are also instructional videos and textbooks, and even SignWriting greeting cards. Two volumes of Deaf Perspectives video have been produced, in which Deaf people discuss SignWriting, how they use it, why they were initially opposed to SignWriting, and why they now like it. A 500-member electronic mail list (SignWriting Forum) is also maintained, whereby interested people can discuss SignWriting issues and be informed of new products or upgrades.

Perhaps the DAC's most ambitious project is SignWriter, the "sign processor" software that types words and signs. It has a built-in dictionary, permitting many pre-drawn symbols to be pasted in without having to create them from scratch. Commands can appear in eight spoken languages as preferred (Danish, English, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, or Swedish) and fingerspelling keyboards and sign language dictionary files are available for 14 countries. This makes it possible to type a word and have a sign appear, which makes the program usable by those not highly skilled in the signed language. Work is in progress on version 5.0 of this program.

Another major DAC product is an entire American Sign Language Dictionary Written in SignWriting consisting of over 3,000 ASL signs. For children, there is a project still underway to produce an American Sign Language Picture Dictionary, which will show the SignWriting symbol, the English word, and a cartoon picture of the word.

The DAC also maintains an extensive and frequently updated (but graphics-heavy and slow-loading) SignWriting Web site that includes downloadable shareware, children's stories, excerpts from training materials, transcriptions from videos, articles, and newsletters, and a wealth of related information.

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