SignWriting List Archive 1
October 1997 - May 1998

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January 8, 1998

SUBJECT: SignWriting Is NOT A Language

Sutton's Note:
The message below is very eloquently written by James Womack, a Deaf professor formerly from Gallaudet, and now in Las Vegas, Nevada. Before I post it on our web site, I want to share it with all of you. It was written in response to someone who was against SignWriting because they thought SignWriting was a "new language". The person was concerned that we "change ASL". Many people think that SignWriting is another form of "SEE" signs.

Of course, if they learned SignWriting they would know that SignWriting records ASL exactly as a video would record it, except with symbols instead of pictures made by a machine. And if they met me or the many wonderful Deaf people who work with me, they would know we are "ASL purists" who want to preserve the language exactly as it is.

That is why I appreciate James' response so much. Here it is:

From: Krakadoom <>
Date: Fri, 19 Dec 1997 09:12:13 EST
Subject: Re: SignWriting Is NOT A Language

SignWriting is not a language. Nor is writing of any form a language. They are graphic representations of a language. Languages exist in true form as either spoken means of communication or a manual means. This encompasses such lingual forms as the drumtalk used by certain African tribes, the whistling language of another tribe in Africa, the signs used by Native Americans for trading purposes, and the various sign languages of the world.

When we formulate a graphic means of representing these languages, we call it writing. Writing can take more than one form. It can be phonetic representations in the form of symbols called letters, words, and sentences. It can be hieroglyphics like those used by ancient Egyptians and the Sumerians. It can be highly abstract symbols such of those of Asian nations. It can even be a light-based system like Morse Code. But never, never, never is writing the language itself. It is an artificial representation of a language. And that's all it will ever be. And that is what SignWriting is.

Before I understood the above, I used to automatically reject ( indeed held a total abhorrene for ) SignWriting. But then I saw how even audists inside schools for the Deaf prevented ASL from being a "written" part of their program and recruited parents in favor of this. That is while mouthing support for ASL, they refused to write it into the curriculum or program goals. One of the arguments they used was that ASL was not really a language because it has no written form. This is a stupid argument because all languages pre-date their written form. If these audists accept this argument, they must also accept that all languages were not languages until they had a written form. That includes their beloved English. They refuse to do this and we know why.

The very nature of the argument is absurd beyond belief. Yet this is what they used against ASL and got away with it. However. SignWriting removes this frivilous argument. But if Deaf people insist on attacking and automatically rejecting SignWriting, we only hurt ourselves because we literally give audists ammunition to effectively work against us.

SignWriting is not a language. It is a representation of a language. ASL was here long before SignWriting. English was here long before it had a written form. Some South American native tribes to this day have no written form. One day they will and that form will NOT be a language, it will be representative of the language. Someday, we Deaf people will understand this fundamental fact and realize SignWriting is an ally and not an enemy. Someday. Someday.


Community College of Southern Nevada
Department of International Languages
3200 East Cheyenne Avenue, #N2C,
North Las Vegas, Nevada, 89030-4296
702-651-4301 TTY
702-643-6427 FAX



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