February 19, 1998
MESSAGE TO THE SIGNWRITING EMAIL LIST
SUBJECT: Help In Research
Date: Thu, 19 Feb 1998 01:20:08 -0500
From: Charles Butler <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Help in Research
Charles Butler replies to Cecilia:
Having been involved with Sign Writing since 1976, I feel that
I can answer some of your questions.
> 1) What is the advantage of a writing system for sign
language that is
> not one of the "presently accepted transcription systems"?
By "presently accepted transcription systems", I presume
what is meant is English gloss or "spoken gloss" ,
not "sign transcription".
When I am teaching sign language, or when I am learning a new
sign, I want a way to write exactly what my hands are doing,
not "COW MOON JUMPED OVER", for example, which presumes
that I already know COW, where to put MOON and where to move
the primary hand for JUMPED OVER but instead, put "Y hand
at primary temple, rubbing, turning pronately, secondary hand
forming crescent moon, primary hand changing to "double
quote" hand, jumping laterally above secondary hand, ending
above and to the left of secondary hand with "double quote"
hand edge on to the signer." COW JUMPED OVER doesn't do
it, nor does a verbal English or any other spoken descriptive
language. Sign Writing does, with minimal confusion. There is
only one way to write what my hands are doing, and it can be
read and copied even if I am not present. If a transcription
system can truly do that, without the signer knowing the signed
language, the equivalent of a person unfamiliar with English
reading a phonetic transcription of KAU ZHUMPT AUVR MUN, as "cow
jumped over moon", then the transcription system is complete
and universal, not based on a single sign language but on universal
hand, body, movement, gesture language.
>2) Why should a language be written at all?
Without a written language, a heritage dies. Without written
language we would not have the words and dialect of Shakespeare,
Ovid, Lao Tsu, or Gautama Buddha, to name four writers no longer
alive, in four different languages, and three different transcription
systems. With a transcription system that is truly "cheremic"
to correspond to "phonetic", we can trace sign language
of elderly speakers in Denmark, Australia, Borneo, Brazil, Japan,
Korea, and Mexico, to name unrelated sign languages, and compare
them to current usage in a way that GLOSS simply cannot do. With
the same kind of "cheremic" study we can compare Cistercian
monastery sign language (dating to the 1400's) with conceptions
of thought with ASL (1800's) or Nicaraguan (1996) without confusion
of spoken language.
I am putting together, for example, a comparison of "royal
court" related signs using Danish, Norwegian, Spanish, British,
Cistercian, and ASL signed languages for the Society for Creative
Anachronism, a historical recreation group. There are a number
of deaf who are members of this association, and the opportunity
for linguistic research comparing sign languages and their histories
is a unique resource. Sign language is used in court both to
sign to the Deaf present, but also to those who in a noisy, acoustically
difficult hall have need to understand the announcements from
the stage referring to "medieval" awards which have
historical roots both in ASL and in European heraldry. Using
the common language of gesture, a combination of ASL and British
sign language is used for such diverse signs as "King (the
ASL, British, and Danish signs are all different), Queen, Baron,
Award of Arms, Knight, Chirurgeon (Medical Worker), and three
types of "herald", the speaking herald (sign "preach"
with an "H" hand, the signing herald (sign "sign"
with an "H" hand), and the scholarly herald (sign "teacher"
with an "H" hand). Sign writing enables a large populace
to learn the signs through the mails as well as personally.
3) Use of native speakers in transmitting their language. The
Danish public school system is a primary case in point. If one
needs 30 references, then take the Deaf schools of Denmark, Norway,
Great Britain, Brazil, Blue Field school in Nicaragua, Gallaudet
College, and as a linguistic system, the Dance Writing of Oberlin
Conservatory as 7 different uses, and find teachers in each group
to bring the total of 30 different uses. I think with Valerie
Sutton's help, one should be able to find 30 different projects
that are currently using sign transcription. If as a test group
one wishes to use Stokoe notation at Gallaudet and compare it
to a living language like Blue Field school in Nicaragua, it
would make a fascinating case study, one for "linguistic
research" and the other for "living language".
Well, that's my two cents worth. When I teach sign language,
I teach transcription as well, so that when I am not present,
and a student sees a new sign, they can write it on a flash card,
practice it, correct it, compare it between various native Deaf
speakers and refine it in their usage. With a writing system
that truly records what one's hands are doing, then one can be
self correcting and recording, rather than just signing.
Charles R. Butler, III
Sign Writer and ASL Signer